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House Takes a Cautious Step on Ethics

Lawmakers can no longer secretly add `earmarked' spending provisions to some bills. But the rule doesn't apply in the Senate.

September 15, 2006|Noam N. Levey and Richard Simon | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — Nine months after House Republican leaders pledged to enact sweeping ethics reform in the wake of a series of scandals, a divided House on Thursday approved what critics described as a modest change in the system that lets members slip special "earmarks" into spending bills.

Earmarking, the largely secret process by which powerful members of Congress insert spending provisions into legislation without going through the normal budget process, has been widely used to do favors for business and other interests in exchange for political support, especially campaign contributions. It has also been at the center of several scandals, including the case of lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

On Thursday, the Republican-controlled chamber voted 245 to 171 to require that the authors of earmarks be identified in spending bills, a rule that proponents said would help curb the practice.

"We have seen a challenge here ... and we've stepped up to the plate," said House Rules Committee Chairman David Dreier (R-San Dimas), who was tapped in January to help lead his party's push for what he said then would be "bold, strong reform initiatives."

Thursday's more limited measure was backed by 199 Republicans and 45 Democrats. Twenty-seven California representatives, including all but one Republican, supported the measure; 24 opposed it. Two did not vote.

After the vote, President Bush praised the bill, which he said would "shine a brighter light on earmarks."

But critics charged that the House bill left gaping holes. For one thing, it will not apply across the board to all legislation. Authors of some earmarks added to tax bills may still go unidentified. Indeed, Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Redlands), chairman of the Appropriations Committee and the lone California Republican to vote against the bill, had said it unfairly singled out appropriations bills for the disclosure requirement.

Thursday's action also did not impose any new rules on the Senate, which still allows its members to insert spending provisions and tax breaks into legislation without identifying themselves.

And critics noted that the House vote did not advance broader ethics measures -- such as limits on the free meals and travel that many members receive from lobbyists -- that have been stalled in the House and Senate.

One reason adding greater transparency to the earmark process may not restrain the practice is that -- though they have not been required to identify themselves in the past -- many members have publicly boasted of the money they steered into their districts.

In North Carolina, for example, where Republican Rep. Charles H. Taylor is locked in a tough reelection campaign, he is highlighting his position as a senior member of the Appropriations Committee and inviting voters to check a map on his campaign website to "see how many of your taxpayer dollars Congressman Taylor has returned to your county."

Because of the limited nature of the House action, reform advocates dismissed it as little more than window dressing.

"There are major problems with this earmark reform," said Stephen Ellis of Taxpayers for Common Sense. "It doesn't capture every earmark. It doesn't make it easier to strip wasteful earmarks. It won't reduce the number of earmarks."

"The earmark rules changes will not fool the American people into ignoring the irresponsible failure by the House to address the worst House corruption scandals in decades," said Democracy 21 President Fred Wertheimer, a longtime champion of ethics reform.

With less than two months before the November elections, House Republican leaders have been under increasing pressure to produce some kind of reform. They have also been under pressure from conservatives to rein in "pork barrel" spending.

Democrats have hammered Republicans all year over ethics, repeatedly accusing the majority of presiding over a "culture of corruption."

Republican promises of reform in January followed scandals involving Abramoff and former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham, the Rancho Santa Fe Republican who pleaded guilty last year to accepting bribes from defense contractors in return for steering their way federal projects worth millions of dollars.

Abramoff once referred to the Appropriations Committee as a "favor factory."

An investigation is also underway into ties between appropriations chairman Lewis and a lobbying firm whose clients have received millions of dollars in earmarks. Lewis has denied any wrongdoing, saying that earmarks he sought benefited his district.

Democrats have had to contend with their own scandals this year, with Reps. Alan B. Mollohan (D-W.Va.) and William J. Jefferson (D-La.) both forced from committees amid allegations of wrongdoing.

In a sign of how closely action on Capitol Hill is tied to this year's battle for control of Congress, Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.), who chairs the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, invoked his party's campaign call for a "new direction" in his floor speech opposing the bill.

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