Peoria Journal Star
September 15, 2006
House shines light on earmarks
Critics say rules change is weak, political cover for Republicans
WASHINGTON, D.C. - The House on Thursday approved a plan
requiring lawmakers to publicly attach their names to some
projects they tuck into tax and spending bills - a move that
critics called an anemic attempt to address the sort of corruption
that put former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham behind bars.
Rep. Ray LaHood, R-Peoria, and other members of the House
Appropriations Committee had fought the proposal to shine light on
the spending "earmarks" because they said it wasn't applied
equally to all committees. However, LaHood ultimately voted for
it. "I thought it was the best we could do for the moment," LaHood
said after the House passed the rules change on a 245-171 vote.
Critics said Republican leaders pushed for the vote only to
shield themselves from charges in the upcoming election that they
had failed to address ethics despite the high-profile bribery
convictions of Cunningham, R-Calif., and Republican lobbyist Jack
LaHood: 'People like earmarks'
But LaHood said he didn't think the vote would have much of an
impact on voters this November, saying people in his district are
more concerned about the economy or the war in Iraq. "People like
earmarks in central Illinois because they know that it benefits
programs and helps people," LaHood said.
The House agreed to change rules that now allow lawmakers to
anonymously insert earmarks, which direct federal money to
specific local firms or projects. But the rules change affects
only the House and is only effective through the end of this year.
It also exempts earmarks going to federal entities, raising
questions whether it would shed light on the type of activity that
involved Cunningham, who used the Defense Department
appropriations process to award federal contracts in exchange for
bribes totaling $2.4 million.
Worse than nothing?
"Often, passing bad reform legislation is worse than passing no
reform legislation at all," said John Berthoud, president of the
National Taxpayers Union, which had pressed for more comprehensive
measures that included limits on gifts and trips. "Some might
argue that we should go ahead and accept a weak bill with the hope
it can be strengthened later. I think it will work in just the
opposite way - a weak bill now will probably be an impediment to
real action later."
However, many Republicans and good-government watchdogs
consider it an important "down payment" on future, tighter reforms
that Congress has discussed, but which have been shelved because
of differences between the House and Senate and fierce opposition
from some lawmakers.
"We are blowing away the fog of anonymity so the public can
have a clear picture of what the projects are, what they cost and
who is sponsoring them," said House Rules Committee Chairman David
Dreier, R-Calif. "This is a victory for fiscal responsibility and
a victory for spending taxpayer dollars more wisely."
It was the abuse of the earmarking process highlighted by the
Cunningham and Abramoff cases that prompted congressional leaders
earlier this year to craft broader reforms that would have
addressed ethics training, slowed the revolving door between the
Capitol and the lobbying industry, and reined in gifts and
privately funded trips for lawmakers. But those efforts have
stalled. Critics also complain that the House rules change only
requires disclosure of the sponsor of an earmark affecting just
one entity. For example, the rule would not cover a tax break for
two large multinational corporations, the liberal Center on Budget
and Policy Priorities said in a report.
House appropriators complained that the new rule appeared to
single out bills under their jurisdiction and did not apply
equally to other committees where earmarking also happens. For
instance, the last highway bill included 6,373 earmarks totaling
LaHood switches sides
LaHood was one of 12 Republicans on the Appropriations
Committee to vote for the rules change, while 22 Republican
committee members voted against it.
Just a day earlier, LaHood was strongly opposed to the
leadership-backed proposal. Even after he voted for it, he
complained that it contains loopholes exempting provisions passed
by the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee and the Transportation
In recent years, LaHood has earmarked millions of dollars
benefiting central Illinois projects and firms, including several
whose lobbyists until earlier this year sat on his fundraising
committee. He has denied any connection.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco called the
vote "a political gimmick to make it look as if something is
But even skeptics of Thursday's vote were heartened that the
House has approved a Senate-passed plan - sponsored by Sens. Tom
Coburn, R-Okla., and Barack Obama, D-Ill. - making it easier for
anyone with a computer to track federal spending. Under that plan,
the White House Office of Management and Budget would create a
searchable online database with information on all federal grants,
contracts, earmarks and loans of more than $25,000.
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