By Jeffrey H. Birnbaum
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 15, 2006
The House voted yesterday to shed more light on narrow-interest tax and spending legislation called earmarks, an incremental step toward openness that ended the prospect for a more sweeping overhaul of federal lobbying laws this year.
With a 245 to 171 vote, the House reacted to a year of congressional scandals by requiring its members to own up to the thousands of earmarks they sponsor each year.
Earmarks have been at the center of corruption investigations involving several lawmakers and lobbyists, and a public outcry against them helped spur a high-priority effort this year to devise ethics legislation that would have restricted contacts between lobbyists and members of Congress.
Instead, the House simply changed its internal rules to require that these targeted programs and their sponsors be disclosed in every type of bill, a procedure that does not currently exist. The measure, like any such rule change, could expire at the end of the year, but it is likely to be re-adopted along with the House's many other rules, Republican leaders said.
"We are blowing away the fog of anonymity," said Rep. David Dreier (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Rules Committee. "The goal is to pull back the curtain on earmarks to the public."
The rule change shelves a wider ethics bill, however, at least until next year. That bill became bogged down amid disagreements between the House and the Senate, and the reluctance of lawmakers from both parties to limit their interactions with lobbyists. The earmarks measure was brought up as a passable way to address voter unrest over the scandals, aides said.
"This bill represents the death of lobby reform," said Rep. David R. Obey (D-Wis.), a former chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.
The Senate is working on its own change in earmarks rules, which its leaders also hope to approve in lieu of broad ethics legislation this year, top staffers said. The staffers added that subjecting earmarks to more sunshine will allow lawmakers to tell their constituents that they addressed their ethics concerns even though the broad overhaul bill failed.
The larger ethics effort began with fanfare in January, prompted by a series of congressional scandals that started with the guilty plea of former lobbyist Jack Abramoff on fraud and conspiracy charges.
The ethics bill faltered, however, after being gradually diluted, at least compared with the initial promises made by congressional leaders. House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), for example, advanced a plan that would have prohibited lawmakers from accepting privately funded travel. But lawmakers rejected that provision along with many others that would have restricted lobbyists or would have done more than improve disclosure about lobbyists' encounters with Congress.
The House and the Senate did endorse separate lobbying-overhaul bills this spring, but efforts to reconcile them stalled over a disagreement about a House-passed provision that would restrict independent campaign organizations called 527s. Senate Democrats and a handful of Republicans refused to accept the provision, but the House insisted that it be included in the final bill.
Lawmakers from both parties and both chambers also lost their enthusiasm for the bill as lobbying groups pressured them to water down the legislation and voters remained silent about its diminishing prospects.
Democratic leaders complained about the earmarks change yesterday. Rep. Louise M. Slaughter (D-N.Y.) called it "shameful" and "a sham." She said that the measure would not end the abuse of the earmarking process and was filled with loopholes that would still permit anonymous projects to be inserted into law without public scrutiny.
Obey called the measure a "trivial pursuit," saying it would do little to alter federal spending while blocking a serious updating of federal ethics laws. "The majority has labored long and produced a mouse," Obey added, "or a fig leaf at best."
Not all Republicans are fans of the proposal. The rule change was opposed by several Republican members of the House Appropriations Committee, who have said they resent that the change would affect them more than it would members of other committees. Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.), the Appropriations Committee chairman, and some of his most senior Republican members voted no.
This defiance of GOP leaders came despite a letter written by Hastert and House Majority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) urging the appropriators to relent and to vote in favor of the earmarks change. The earmark bill, Boehner said on the House floor, will bring the process "out of the shadows."