House Aims to Limit 'Earmarks' But Broader Ethics Reform Prospects Are Dim

Unable to agree on sweeping ethics legislation, the House this week will try to pass a narrower bill to shed light on pet projects that lawmakers tuck into spending and tax bills.

The measure on "earmarks," a rules change that would apply only to the House, is a small part of comprehensive lobbying and ethics legislation that the House and Senate both passed last spring in the wake of a spate of scandals involving lawmakers and lobbyists.

But the two chambers have been unable to find common ground, and prospects for legislation that was deemed a top priority when this session of Congress convened last January are not good.

But even the scaled-back earmarks measure, which would require disclosure of special projects inserted, often furtively, into larger bills, is facing opposition.

Republicans on the Appropriations Committee, which puts together annual spending bills, have objected to being singled out for earmark reform and demand that any new rule also apply to tax and authorization bills.

Republicans on the committee held up passage of the lobbying bill last May over the same issue.

House Majority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, said at a news conference Tuesday that he was working with the chairmen of the involved committees and "we're going to do it this week."

He acknowledged the problems: "Everyone has a different description of what an earmark is."

"If you look at the members who got themselves in trouble, it was over the illicit use of earmarks," Boehner added.

Earlier this year former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham, R-Calif., was sentenced to more than eight years in prison after pleading guilty to taking $2.4 million in bribes in return for steering government contracts to certain companies.

The House has also scheduled a Wednesday vote on a bill, approved by the Senate last week, that would create a database of government spending so that citizens and activist groups can more easily track the grants and contracts included in the federal budget.

Democrats, who say the earmarks measure is a pre-election effort by the Republicans to show they are accomplishing something to improve ethics, said just bringing openness to the use of earmarks wasn't enough.

"Earmark reform must do more than identify an earmark's sponsor," said Rep. Rahm Emanuel, D-Ill., in a letter to his colleagues. "We need to curb the proliferation of unnecessary and suspect earmarks."

Emanuel said he would offer legislation that would prevent members from awarding earmarks that would benefit a registered lobbyist who serves as chairman of a particular member's political action committee. It would also end the practice of adding earmarks into conference reports that come out of House-Senate negotiations.

Boehner said the Appropriations Committee has already been successful in reducing earmarks, noting that requests for member projects had been reduced by 37 percent compared to last year, with spending for such projects down $7.8 billion.

The larger lobbying and ethics bills, an outgrowth of the scandal involving disgraced former lobbyist Jack Abramoff, would have limited the number of meals and gifts that members could accept from lobbyists, required greater information on the purpose of privately funded trips, slowed the movement of members leaving Congress for jobs in lobbying and mandated lobbyists to submit information on their activities more frequently.

The legislation became hung up over a provision in the House bill that would have limited donations to independent political groups known as 527s. Such groups tended to provide more financial support to Democrats in the last presidential election, and Senate Democrats made clear that they would not support any lobbying bill that contained 527 restrictions.