WASHINGTON — 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.