WASHINGTON – The Senate voted Tuesday to shine more light on thousands of expensive pet projects buried in legislation every year after the new Democratic majority bowed to a successful push by Republicans to make new disclosure rules even tougher than originally planned.
The vote was 98-0 to require senators to reveal the water projects, hiking trails, defense contracts or tax breaks for specific industries they insert in legislation. That unanimity came five days after Democrats, holding a slim majority, were thwarted by a GOP-led rebellion in advancing their own version of "earmark" reform.
Bringing transparency to earmarks is a major objective of the ethics and lobbying reform legislation that the Senate has been debating since the new congressional session began.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., who last week led opposition to the Republican approach, lauded the final product, saying it "combined the best ideas from both sides of the aisle."
Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., the author of the amendment to the ethics bill, said the ability of the two sides to come together on the issue was "a good signal for the new Congress."
DeMint last Thursday proposed that the Senate adapt for its bill the more expansive definition of an earmark previously approved by the House. Under that definition, an earmark subject to public disclosure would include special projects tucked in federal agency budgets, such as a Pentagon contract, as well as nonfederal projects such as state parks and municipal museums. The definition in the original Senate bill would have applied only to nonfederal entities.
"Specifically, federal earmarks will be disclosed as well as those earmarks contained in committee reports that are not written in the text of a bill," DeMint said.
Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., DeMint's ally on the issue, said the Democratic approach would catch less than 5 percent of the almost 13,000 earmarks that made it into legislation last year.
Democrats countered that making public disclosures of every project designated by federal agencies was unworkable. But after Democratic leaders failed in an attempt to kill the DeMint provision, Reid on Friday acknowledged moving too quickly on the issue and pledged to work with DeMint to strengthen his amendment.
The Senate first voted 98-0 to accept changes to the DeMint amendment offered by Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., that would make it more difficult for legislators to slip in tax breaks that help a single company or a limited number of people.
Lawmakers would also be required to post their earmarks on the Internet 48 hours before a vote.
The Senate on Tuesday also approved, by voice vote, an amendment that would bar lawmakers from including earmarks in the classified parts of a bill or a conference report without language in unclassified terms describing the project, funding levels and the sponsor.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., sponsor of the amendment with Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., said former Rep.Randy "Duke" Cunningham, R-Calif., now serving an eight-year prison term for accepting bribes from defense contractors, over a five-year period used classified reports to gain some $70 to $80 million in earmarks that helped his friends.
The Senate also voted 95-2 to advance debate on a Reid amendment that would broaden the ban on lobbyists offering gifts and travel to include companies that hire lobbyists. The amendment also would end the practice of senators' paying the equivalent of first-class tickets when they catch rides on corporate jets — instead they would have to pay more expensive charter rates.
The Senate is trying to finish work on the ethics and lobbying bill, which seeks to restrict the ability of lobbyists to shower meals, gifts and travel on lawmakers, by the end of this week.