In House and Senate, All Eyes on Earmarks

By Jonathan Weisman
Tuesday, May 2, 2006

At both ends of the Capitol, lawmakers will grapple this week with the issue of earmarks, those narrowly crafted, often anonymous provisions that fund pet projects in a home district or state. But while the House tries to restrict them, the Senate will likely be passing them.

The House will take up legislation tomorrow to curb the influence of lobbyists and offer opponents of earmarking new weapons to combat the age-old but increasingly abused practice. The bill would require lobbyists to file quarterly instead of semiannual disclosures, and to include in those reports the donations they give to federal candidates and political action committees.

Lobbyists would also have to make public the value of any gift they give to lawmakers or congressional aides. Appropriations bills would have to list any earmarks they contain and the sponsors of those projects. Ethics training would become mandatory for House employees under the legislation.

Watchdog groups have denounced those measures as shamefully deficient in the face of a congressional ethics scandal and have called on lawmakers to vote against the bill. But their complaints might be beside the point. A measure sparked by the Jack Abramoff lobbying imbroglio is powered by a different issue: earmarks.

Under the House bill, all pet projects in the 11 annual bills that fund the government will have to be clearly marked and claimed by their sponsors. Opponents of such earmarks will have new authority to move to strike individual earmarks and bring down whole bills that are too larded with pork.

The House Appropriations Committee fought the provision, first saying it was unnecessary, then that it would tie the House in knots and hand Democrats a cudgel to use on Republicans. Finally, the committee contended that if the measure applies to appropriations, it should also apply to tax measures and "authorization" bills, such as last year's massive highway bill that gave the world a "Bridge to Nowhere" in Alaska. Only after House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) promised that a final bill would apply to all committees did Appropriations Committee members agree to the procedural vote needed to bring the bill to the floor.

With the appropriators on board, passage is expected tomorrow, but it could be a tight vote. Most Democrats will vote no, as will some Republicans who wanted a much tougher bill.

Senate Considers Emergency Spending Bill

The Senate will also be fighting over earmarks, but in this case the earmarks appear to have the upper hand. The Senate will wrap up consideration -- probably tomorrow -- of a record-setting, $106.5 billion emergency spending bill to fund the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and also ongoing Gulf Coast hurricane relief.

Such emergency spending measures skirt Congress's already frayed budget rules, adding directly to the deficit with no offsetting cuts required. And no emergency bill has been as large as the bill before the Senate.

But the big fights have not been over the items measured in the tens of billions of dollars but those in the millions. They include a $700 million provision to move a Mississippi railroad that has already been rebuilt after Katrina, at a cost of more than $250 million; another $176 million to rebuild an armed forces retirement home in Gulfport, Miss.; and another provision that would provide as much as $500 million to Northrop Grumman Corp., which operates a shipbuilding facility in Pascagoula, Miss., to compensate the company for storm-related losses.

Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) has launched a lonely campaign to strike each of those measures and more. On their own, they would be questionable, Coburn maintains. But no one can assert they are national emergencies to be funded outside the strictures of the budgeting process, he added.

Senators from both parties have rallied around the Senate Appropriations Committee to defend a lawmaker's right to earmark -- emergency or not.

House Examines Strengthening Port Security

Later this week, the House will turn to a bipartisan bill, drafted originally by Reps. Daniel E. Lungren (R-Calif.) and Jane Harman (D-Calif.), to strengthen port security more than four years after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks highlighted their vulnerability. The bill would provide $7.4 billion to safeguard seaports by bolstering nuclear and radiological detection efforts, enhancing international cargo screening and setting up cargo tracking systems.

Democratic leaders will also try to grab the spotlight by seeking a vote on an amendment that would require 100 percent screening of cargo coming into the country. The amendment was rejected by the House Homeland Security Committee last week as infeasible and potentially debilitating to global trade.

The House and Senate are also preparing to act on a long-awaited measure that would extend some tax cuts expected to expire soon. The House and Senate passed competing versions late last year, with the House extending the 2003 cuts to tax rates on dividends and capital gains, and the Senate offering generous relief from the alternative minimum tax, a parallel income tax system designed to tax the rich that increasingly affects the middle class. Negotiators have been at odds for months but are expected to reach a deal this week.

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