Listening to Congress: Earmark Rules and Statutory Interpretation
69 Pages Posted: 12 Mar 2008 Last revised: 12 Apr 2012
In the wake of recent scandals involving lobbying and special interest spending on Capitol Hill, each of the houses of the 110th Congress adopted unprecedented legislative, procedural rules that require broad disclosure of spending earmarks and tax provisions that benefit special interests. Recognizing the strong incentives for members of Congress to hide special interest deals within complex tax and spending legislation and through ambiguous drafting, scholars have long sought to bring such deals into the open in order to promote congressional deliberation and public accountability. Although the new reforms appear designed to address that laudable goal, the efficacy of the rules is doubtful given their self-referential status; that is, they rely upon the foxes to govern administration of the henhouse.
This Article begins by describing various tactics legislators have used or will likely use to evade the new disclosure regime, as well as deficiencies in the regime's design. The piece then explores the value of enlisting a force external to Congress as a response to the inherent weakness of endogenous, procedural rules. It concludes that although direct judicial review of legislation for compliance with the rules likely raises constitutional difficulties, judicial involvement through statutory interpretation offers a potential solution. Specifically, when interpreting ambiguous legislation that falls within the ambit of the disclosure rules, judges should assume the rules have functioned correctly; in other words, if no special interest beneficiary has been disclosed, judges should assume that none was intended and interpret the ambiguous provisions accordingly. The proposal thus strengthens congressional adherence to the rules by imposing costs upon defecting lawmakers, as well as the special interests they support. It does so, however, without offending the constitutional mandate that lawmakers have purview over such rules. Hence it offers a counterpoint to the entrenched view that Congress cannot truly precommit itself through procedural rules. Furthermore, because this method of statutory interpretation is guided by Congress's own remedy to the problem of special interests, it differs in an important respect from prior scholarly proposals for narrow interpretation of special interest legislation, making it more resilient to the critique that the interpretive mode exceeds the judicial function.
Keywords: earmark, special interest, lobbying, legislative rules, good government, statutory interpretation, tax, spending, budget
JEL Classification: H60, H61, E62, H20, K34, D72, P16
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation