San Diego Union Tribune

March 1, 2006

Senate panel OKs blocking, disclosure of earmarks

By Toby Eckert

WASHINGTON – A Senate panel voted yesterday to curb special-interest “earmarks” like the ones former Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham used to benefit defense contractors who plied him with money and expensive gifts.

The Senate Rules Committee also voted to bar senators from involving themselves in hiring decisions by lobbying firms. The practice has created a dense web of personal and political relationships between lawmakers and their former colleagues and staff members, who now seek their votes as lobbyists.

The panel's vote was the first in what should be a series of actions in coming weeks intended to reduce the taint of scandal as legislators face disillusioned voters in an election year.

Tomorrow, the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee will take up a more comprehensive bill, sponsored by Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Joe Lieberman, D-Conn.

The full Senate could consider a combination of the two bills as early as next week.

House GOP leaders also have promised far-reaching changes in lobbying rules, though they have been slowed by dissension in their own ranks.

House Rules Committee aides said they may push for a temporary ban on all privately funded travel pending a study on how to differentiate legitimate fact-finding missions from fun-in-the-sun outings to warm-weather resorts.

The Senate committee yesterday approved the proposals 17-0. However, Democrats signaled that they would continue pushing for more comprehensive ethics reform after the Republican-controlled committee rejected some of their proposals, including broader bans on gifts and privately funded travel.

“I think we've got the beginnings of a very good bipartisan bill,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who drafted the provision targeting earmarks with committee Chairman Trent Lott, R-Miss.

Earmarks are secretive spending provisions that lawmakers can insert into legislation to guide money and contracts to campaign supporters, pet causes and their home districts. Cunningham, R-Rancho Santa Fe, resigned from the House after admitting in November that he took $2.4 million in bribes from defense contractors in return for helping them get contracts.

The Feinstein-Lott legislation would allow senators to block earmarks in the final version of a bill, known as a conference report, if either the House or Senate did not previously include those provisions. It would take 60 votes, three-fifths of the Senate, to restore the earmark.

All Senate bills and conference reports would have to include a list of earmarks, the names of the members who proposed them and an explanation of their “essential governmental purpose.” The information would have to be posted on the Internet for at least 24 hours before the legislation is considered.

Conference reports, which are often drafted in secret, are frequently used to slip controversial measures through Congress.

In a surprise move, the Rules Committee approved a proposal by Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., to bar members from attempting to reward or punish lobbying firms and other interest groups in order to influence their hiring decisions.

The proposal takes aim at the “K Street Project,” in which leaders of the GOP-run Congress pressured firms to hire only Republicans, making it clear that the firms' agendas would run into trouble if they didn't. Many of the firms have offices on Washington's K Street.

“It became a partisan employment scheme, which paid off handsomely,” Durbin said, as former lawmakers, staffers and their political allies got lucrative lobbying jobs.

The committee addressed several other elements of the cozy relationship between lobbyists and lawmakers that has been highlighted by the scandal involving Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff. He recently pleaded guilty to charges of soliciting legislation and other favors from lawmakers and their staffs in return for trips and campaign contributions.

The committee voted to:

Require approval by the Senate Ethics Committee before a senator takes a trip paid for by a private group.

Ban gifts, except for meals, from registered lobbyists or foreign agents. The cost of meals and who provided them would have to be reported on senators' Web sites within 15 days.

Bar former senators, Senate administrative officers and House speakers from the Senate floor if they become lobbyists. The House passed a similar ban in February.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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