WASHINGTON – Ten senators led by Sen. John McCain took on the Senate's much maligned practice of inserting individual members' special projects, often without the knowledge of their colleagues, into larger spending bills.
The "Pork-Barrel Reduction Act," introduced Thursday by eight Republicans and two Democrats, is the latest in a rash of proposals promoting ways to restore integrity to the political process in the wake of lobbying and ethics scandals.
McCain's bill would allow senators to raise points of order against special projects, or earmarks, that are attached to spending bills without having been approved by the relevant committee. Under the procedure, which also applies to policy changes embedded in spending bills, 60 votes would be needed to override the point of order and keep the provision in the bill.
The measure also would require that earmarks be described in detail and the sponsor identified. House-Senate compromise bills would have to be made public at least 48 hours before the Senate considers them.
Critics of earmarks complain they are often put in bills only after the bills have passed the House or Senate, and that lawmakers are forced to vote on massive spending bills put together by House-Senate negotiators without knowing what's in them.
According to a Congressional Research Service study, the number of earmarks in spending, or appropriations, bills went from 4,126 in 1994 to 15,877 in 2005. The value of those earmarks doubled to $47.4 billion in the same period.
"It's a relatively recent phenomenon that members of Congress have begun to believe that their political support is only or largely determined by a number," Sen. John Sununu, R-N.H., said of the desire of lawmakers to secure projects they can brag about back home.
The bill introduced by McCain, R-Ariz., is one of several to tackle the earmarks issue. Senate Rules Committee Chairman Trent Lott, R-Miss., and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., have a similar bill, and Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., also has a plan.
In the House, Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi on Thursday wrote new Majority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, Thursday urging him to move on both lobbying and House procedural reform, including putting an end to secret earmarks and earmarks that fund activities in which the author has a financial interest.
"If we want to stay the majority as a party," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a cosponsor of the McCain bill, "we will reform the way we've been doing business the last few years or we will lose."
McCain said the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal, which has exposed the sometimes unsavory ties between lobbyists and members of Congress, has set the stage for passing legislation that can both make congressional procedures more open and deal with such issues as limiting gifts and travel arranged by lobbyists. "The Abramoff thing is a long way from over," he said.
Also on Thursday, Sens. John Kerry, D-Mass., and Ken Salazar, D-Colo., introduced a bill that would deny federal pension benefits to members of Congress convicted of bribery, conspiracy or other serious ethics offenses.