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 Abramoff.

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."

Reform stalled

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 $24.2 billion.

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 Committee.

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 happening."

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.


Dana Wilkie can be reached at (202)737-7689 or Dori Meinert can be reached at (202) 737-7686 or