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All earmarks should be banned in the House and Senate

Friday, March 12, 2010; A18

SEVEN HOUSE members, including Northern Virginia Rep. James P. Moran Jr. (D), collected more than $840,000 in political contributions from employees and clients of a lobbying firm, Paul Magliocchetti and Associates Group (PMA), during a two-year span. In that same period, the lawmakers, strategically situated on the Appropriations defense subcommittee, directed more than $245 million in earmarks to clients of PMA.

If you think those two facts are unrelated, you are qualified to be on the House ethics committee. The panel recently found that "simply because a member sponsors an earmark for an entity that also happens to be a campaign contributor does not, on these two facts alone, support a claim that a member's actions are being influenced by campaign contributions."

The ethics committee acknowledged that "there is a widespread perception among corporations and lobbyists that campaign contributions provide enhanced access to members or a greater chance of obtaining earmarks." Gee, how could anyone have gotten that impression? Maybe because the lawmakers targeted those seeking earmarks for campaign contributions? Sent their key appropriations staffers to fundraisers?

For instance, in 2008, the appropriations director for Rep. Pete Visclosky (D-Ind.) told corporations interested in obtaining earmarks that they needed to submit requests by Feb. 15. On Feb. 27, Mr. Visclosky's campaign manager sent a letter to companies that had sought his help on defense matters inviting them to a fundraiser on March 12. Mr. Visclosky's political committees received $35,300 from clients of PMA that month, plus another $12,000 from the lobbying firm and its employees. A week after the fundraiser, which was focused on defense contractors and attended by his chief of staff and appropriations director, Mr. Visclosky requested earmarks for six PMA clients, totaling more than $14 million.

House leaders understand that voters may not be quite as obtuse as the ethics committee seems to assume, and their extreme embarrassment -- over this and other scandals -- may lead to useful action. The House is right to ban lawmakers from earmarking government funds for for-profit companies. It should go further, and extend the prohibition to nonprofit and educational institutions as well. Some nonprofit institutions spend enormous sums on lobbyists, who dispense campaign donations in hope of obtaining earmarks. More important, the Senate must follow suit, as much as it appears disinclined to do so. A system that aligns campaign cash and earmarks is inherently unseemly, if not outright corrupt, and the Senate is tainted by this setup as well.

We say this fully aware that the Constitution grants Congress the power of the purse and that earmarks are not close to the biggest reason for out-of-control spending. And that lawmakers have taken steps in recent years to reduce the number of earmarks and make the process more open. And that eliminating earmarks would not end every instance in which private interests lobby for -- and make campaign contributions in hope of obtaining -- particular favors.

It would, however, eliminate the worst such abuse. The House Ethics Manual cautions members "to avoid even the appearance that solicitations of campaign contributions are connected in any way with an action taken or to be taken in an official capacity." The ethics committee, dismissing that caution and a recommendation by the newly created independent Office of Congressional Ethics to investigate two of the seven representatives, decided there was nothing to worry about in the PMA case. With standards this lax, the only reasonable choice is to end the earmarks that fuel this sleazy process.

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