By Robert D. Novak
Monday, July 23, 2007
When Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid picked up his ball and went home after his staged all-night session last week, he saved from possible embarrassment one of the least regular members of his Democratic caucus: Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska. Reform Republican Tom Coburn had ready an amendment to the defense authorization bill removing Nelson's earmark funding a Nebraska-based company whose officials include Nelson's son. Such an effort became impossible when Reid pulled the bill.
That Reid's action had this effect was mere coincidence. He knew that Sen. Carl Levin's amendment to the defense bill mandating a troop withdrawal from Iraq would fall short of the 60 votes needed to cut off debate, and Reid planned from the start to pull the bill after the all-night session, designed to satisfy antiwar zealots, was completed. But Reid is also working behind the scenes with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to undermine earmark transparency and prevent open debate on spending proposals such as Nelson's.
These antics fit the continuing decline of the Senate, including an unwritten rules change requiring 60 votes to pass any meaningful bill. When I arrived on Capitol Hill 50 years ago, Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson (like Reid today) had a slim Democratic majority and faced a Republican president, but he was not burdened with the 60-vote rule. While Johnson did use chicanery, Reid resorts to brute force that shatters the Senate's facade of civilized discourse. Reid is plotting to strip anti-earmark transparency from the final version of ethics legislation passed by the Senate and House, with tacit support from Republican senators and the GOP leadership.
At stake is the fate of Coburn's "Reid amendment," previously passed by the Senate and so called because it would bar earmarks benefiting a senator's family members such as Reid's four lobbyist sons and son-in-law. Nelson's current $7.5 million earmark for software helps 21st Century Systems Inc. (21CSI), which employs the senator's son, Patrick Nelson, as its marketing director. The company gets 80 percent of its funds from federal grants, mostly through earmarks. With nine offices scattered among states represented by appropriators in Congress, the company has in recent years spent $1.1 million to lobby Congress and $160,000 in congressional campaign contributions. "As of April," the Omaha World-Herald reported, "only one piece of [the company's] software has been used -- to help guard a single Marine camp in Iraq -- and it was no longer in use."
In requesting the 21CSI earmark, Nelson did not disclose his son's employment. "There's no requirement that he disclose that," a Nelson spokesman told this column. "But frankly, in this case, we didn't disclose it because it's so public." An April 24 letter from Levin giving senators instructions on how to request an earmark made no mention of the "Reid amendment" that had been passed by the Senate three months earlier but that required only certification that no senator's spouse would benefit from an earmark. Inclusion of Nelson's son, however, would be required if the ethics bill provision passes.
When the defense authorization bill came up last week, Coburn prepared amendments to eliminate the Nelson earmark and the most notorious earmark pending in Congress: Democratic Rep. John Murtha's proposed $23 million for the National Drug Intelligence Center in his Pennsylvania district. Reid's plan to satisfy antiwar activists with an all-night debate averted debate, for now, on those two earmarks.
Reid, the soft-spoken trial lawyer from Searchlight, Nev., has tended to suppress free expression in the World's Greatest Deliberative Body in his tumultuous 6 1/2 months as majority leader. Last week, he cut off an attempt by Sen. Arlen Specter, the veteran moderate Republican, to respond to him with an abruptness that I had not witnessed in a half-century of Senate watching. When Specter finally got the floor, he declared: "Nothing is done here until the majority leader decides to exercise his power to keep the Senate in all night on a meaningless, insulting session. . . . Last night's performance made us the laughingstock of the world." It may get worse if plans to eviscerate ethics legislation are pursued.
© 2007 Creators Syndicate Inc.