San Diego Union Tribune

February 3, 2006

Feinstein offers plan to cut back on earmarks
Lott signs on as co-sponsor; bill would have narrow focus

By Toby Eckert

WASHINGTON – Sen. Dianne Feinstein offered a plan yesterday aimed at curbing special-interest spending by lifting its veil of secrecy and allowing senators to remove questionable “earmarks” from legislation.

At the same time, Feinstein, D-Calif., and co-sponsor, Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., said some earmarking was perfectly legitimate and it would be futile to try to eliminate the controversial practice.

“The problem with earmarks is they're put in in the dark of night . . . and they are unknown,” Feinstein told reporters, saying that her proposal adds the “light of day” to the process.

Late yesterday, Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., announced she would co-sponsor the proposed legislation.

Earmarks are provisions that members of Congress insert into legislation to fund programs that often benefit their supporters, campaign contributors or pet projects. The practice has been under intense scrutiny since former Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham, R-Rancho Santa Fe, pleaded guilty to accepting bribes from defense contractors in return for steering federal contracts to them.

The proposal by Feinstein and Lott, who heads the Senate Rules Committee, would target a narrow range of earmarks that are inserted into bills known as conference reports, which are negotiated by the House and Senate to reconcile differing versions of legislation. The reports – which are lengthy, drafted in secret and voted on without being thoroughly examined – are frequently used by lawmakers and lobbyists to slip through earmarks and other controversial provisions.

Under a rules change proposed by the senators, any provision added to a conference report that was not previously approved by either the House or Senate could be struck by a senator raising a “point of order.” It would take 60 votes – two-thirds of the Senate – to preserve the earmark.

The proposal also would require conference reports to be made available to the Senate and on the Internet at least 24 hours before they are considered and list all earmarks, their sponsors and the justification for them. All requests for earmarks in appropriations bills would have to be listed in the Congressional Record.

“I believe these two changes would make a huge difference and give us an opportunity to knock out some of these egregious projects,” Lott said.

But he acknowledged that probably only a fraction of the thousands of earmarks approved by Congress each year would meet the proposed standards. Many earmarks are approved by one or both chambers of Congress before being included in a conference report.

Members may be reluctant to raise a point of order against an earmark for fear that another member may target one of theirs. Lawmakers are often allowed to insert special provisions into bills in order to secure their votes for the legislation.

Feinstein and Lott defended the use of earmarks under certain circumstances. Feinstein cited a provision she sponsored to help secure a hill in Laguna Beach that was damaged in last summer's mudslide.

“I recognize that earmarks have been abused. I also recognize that earmarks can serve a very real purpose in a natural disaster or emergency situation,” Feinstein said.

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