EVERYBODY WILL KNOW IF IT’S PORK
Led by its new Democratic majority, the House imposed substantial new restrictions Friday on earmarking, a controversial practice increasingly used by legislators from both parties to slip narrowly tailored spending provisions into bills without public scrutiny.
The new rules will not end earmarks, but will force legislators to disclose their actions publicly and certify they have no financial stake in their earmarks.
The often secret nature of the process contributed to its explosive increase in recent years and led to scandals such as the one that ensnared former Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham (R-Rancho Santa Fe), who went to jail for accepting bribes from lobbyists seeking earmarks.
The adoption of new rules cracking down on earmarks was remarkable because leaders of both parties climbed to power by making extensive use of the practice, which provided them influence among their peers and leverage in raising funds from lobbyists.
The reform proposal, championed by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, herself a prodigious author of earmarks, drew praise from conservative Republicans and reform advocates who said they saw the strong measure as a sign that the new Congress may be serious about curbing the excesses of recent years.
“They had the guts to do what we didn’t,” said Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), a critic of taxpayer money going for such things as the National Wild Turkey Federation, cranberry-production conservation and potato research. Many of the most costly and controversial earmarks were put in bills by lawmakers at the request of defense industry lobbyists who donated to their campaigns.
The number of earmarks exploded in the last decade from 1,439 in 1995 to 15,268 last year, according to a Senate estimate. They have been blamed for spawning a troubling culture on Capitol Hill that saw a dramatic rise in the number of lobbyists and some notorious corruption scandals.
Earmarks gained wider notoriety after the $223-million “bridge to nowhere” -- connecting Ketchikan, Alaska, to an island with an airport and about 50 inhabitants -- was slipped into the 2005 highway bill.
The ethics measure, which passed the House Friday on a 280-152 vote, requires that earmarks and their authors be clearly identified.
“I salute the House for attacking this problem,” said Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), who has made earmark reform a hallmark of his career. Coburn said he was uncertain whether the Senate would be as rigorous in its earmark rules when it takes up the issue next week.
The Los Angeles Times reported recently that the new Senate Majority Leader, Harry Reid, earmarked funds for a bridge across the Colorado River that could affect the value of undeveloped land Reid owns in the vicinity. The Nevada Democrat has denied any wrongdoing.
The disclosure was one of many in recent months suggesting that lawmakers, including former House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), may have profited from their own earmarks. He denied any connection between his earmark for highway construction and the rise in the value of property he owned nearby.
In some other cases, the spending provisions look like rewards for campaign contributors and other supporters. Earmarks played a role in the scandal around lobbyist Jack Abramoff and Cunningham’s bribery conviction. They also led to a federal inquiry involving Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Redlands), the former chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. The congressman has denied any wrongdoing.
The greatest power to earmark lies in the hands of appropriations committee members. Reid and Pelosi are both appropriations veterans and rose in power partly because of their ability to use earmarks as carrots or sticks with junior members of Congress. In addition, it helped them and other congressional leaders lure campaign contributions, which they then distributed to colleagues.
Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) was among those who pushed for the new rule. He said Friday that the provision requiring earmark sponsors to certify that neither they nor their spouses would benefit would “curb some of the worst abuses” and ensure that more earmarks go to “public purposes rather than special interests or anyone’s personal benefit.”
He and Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.) had proposed similar legislation a few months ago but their idea was rebuffed -- by Republicans and Democrats.
A spokesman for Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.), the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee who is famous for bringing projects to his home state, said the senator had no comment on the House action. But Tom Gavin said, “The image of the Congress is in the mud, and Senator Byrd wants to work to pick that image up, clean it off, and restore the integrity to the Congress.”
The Senate next week will consider its own ethics measure -- one that also would require earmark sponsors to be identified and could include a process to allow senators to try to strip earmarks out of bills.
Byrd and Rep. David R. Obey (D-Wis.), the House Appropriations Committee chairman, intend to ban earmarks from the unfinished 2007 spending bills.
Obey supports the new House rule and said it would “protect the integrity of the institution.” But he was not happy when President Bush singled out Congress for criticism earlier this week for the proliferation of earmarks.
“If we are going to talk about earmarks, then let’s talk about the guy who does the most earmarking,” Obey said during Friday’s debate, asserting that the president has favored Republican districts in his budget proposal.
White House Deputy Press Secretary Tony Fratto welcomed the House action but said it fell short of the president’s goal of cutting in half the number and cost of earmarks. “To make them transparent is important and should have a chilling effect on new earmarks,” he said, “but reducing the overall number of earmarks should be a goal as well.”
All of the “no” votes were cast by Republicans, with many saying they supported earmark reform but opposed another provision of the rules requiring that any new tax cuts or spending increases be offset with tax increases or spending cuts to keep the deficit from growing. Many Republicans objected to the potential for tax increases.
Taxpayer watchdog groups praised the action. Citizens Against Government Waste called the measure a “long-overdue improvement that will shine light on the corrupting practice of earmarking.”
But group president Tom Schatz cautioned: “Politicians will bend any rule or find any loophole in order to keep or conceal their pork. Taxpayers must keep the heat on Congress for these reform efforts to fully bear fruit.”
Coburn, while praising the House action, cautioned that “this is a slippery cat and we are not going to catch it on the first pass.”
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Ethics rule changes
Democrats finished pushing through new House rules Friday on controversial practices -- such as sneaking earmarks into bills late at night -- that they had cited in alleging a “culture of corruption” in the Republican-led House.
* The House speaker is banned from allowing voting for longer than the scheduled time to round up votes to change the outcome.
* House members on conference committees, which resolve
differences between House and Senate bills, must insist that the committees operate in an open and fair manner and must sign the final report at the same time.
* The House is prohibited from considering conference reports (the special instructions that
accompany bills) altered after conferees signed them.
* The House may not consider legislation that would increase the deficit, and it must require that all spending increases or tax cuts be offset by spending cuts or tax increases.
* House committees must
publish on the Internet a list of earmarks, as well as tax or tariff reductions aimed at fewer
than 10 beneficiaries, to be
considered on the floor.
* House members cannot trade earmarks for votes, and they must disclose their earmarks and certify that neither they nor their spouse would benefit financially.
Source: U.S. House of Representatives
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