House Aims to Bring Special Projects Into the Open

The House is taking a modest step to bring into the open special projects lawmakers slip into legislation, seemingly abandoning more ambitious plans to clean up lawmaker relations with lobbyists.

Republican leaders hailed the end of the growing practice of lawmakers anonymously inserting "earmarks" — targeted spending that often helps a specific company or project in their district. Under the new rule, which will apply only to the House for the rest of this session of Congress, points of order can be raised against bills that don't list earmarks.

"This doesn't get rid of earmarks, but it makes everyone know who's getting them and that's a start," said Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., a leading critic of special interest spending.

Citizens Against Government Waste, a taxpayer watchdog group, said there were 9,963 such member projects in the fiscal year 2006 spending bills, costing $29 billion.

The House vote scheduled for Thursday evening comes a day after Congress passed and sent to the president another bill aimed at making government spending more open to public scrutiny.

Under that bill, the government will set up by 2008 a Google-like search engine that will allow citizens to track hundreds of billions of dollars in grants and contracts that the federal government awards every year.

But there's currently no prospect for movement on more comprehensive open government legislation, lobbying and ethics reform. That had been highlighted as an urgent task at the beginning of the year after several lawmakers were tied to illegal or unsavory actions, particularly with disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

The House and Senate last spring passed bills that would have required lobbyists to be more open about their activities, put limits on gifts and meals from lobbyists and travel involving lobbyists, slowed the movement of lawmakers leaving office for lobbying jobs, provided ethics training to staff and members and ended anonymous earmarks.

But the effort at a compromise stalled over a House provision to limit donations to independent political groups known as 527s. Such groups tend to be more helpful to Democrats, and Senate Democrats objected to a lobbying bill that also takes up campaign finance limits.

Democrats and clean government groups were quick to point out that earmark rules were no substitute for larger ethics reform.

"Clearly, this is their answer to their failure to pass meaningful lobbying disclosure legislation," said Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md.

"It is tragic that Congress is failing to address in any meaningful way the corruption sweeping Capitol Hill in recent years," said Laura MacCleery, director of Public Citizen's Congress Watch division.

Even getting the earmarks rule through the House has been a struggle for GOP leaders. Republican members of the Appropriations Committee have complained that their spending bills have been unfairly targeted under the measure, and that the earmarks disclosure rules should apply equally to bills coming out of authorizing and tax-writing committees.

House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., and Majority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, in a letter to Republican appropriators, said they had listened to their concerns and "we believe we have fulfilled our commitment" to equal treatment. The Republican caucus, they said, "has made it clear that it wants this reform. It is now time to put this reform into our rules."

To meet objections, the final rules change stipulates that earmarks must be listed not only for bills coming out of committees but also when such projects are "airdropped" into House-Senate conference reports or included in amendments adopted on the House floor.

The measure defines an earmark as "a provision that allocates funds outside of the normal formula-driven or competitive bidding process and targets those funds to a specific entity, state or congressional district."

Appropriators continued to object to language that would limit tax earmarks to a tax deduction, credit, exclusion or preference to only one beneficiary.

Steve Ellis of Taxpayers for Common Sense said his group was disappointed the disclosure requirement applies only to nonfederal entities. He said that leaves out thousands of earmarks directed toward an involved federal agency such as the Pentagon, the Army Corps of Engineers or national laboratories.

In the Senate, Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., has directed the top Republican and Democrat on the Rules and Administration Committee to develop a similar package of rules changes.