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Reid and Pelosi Drop the Earmark Ball

July 30, 2007 - by Donny Shaw

Having had their ethics bills repeatedly blocked by senate Republicans from moving forward to a proper conference committee, Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) took the project into their own hands and have come up with an agreement on a bill that they hope to pass through Congress by the end of the week. Lawmakers and interested citizens are seeing what they have come up with for the first time this afternoon and everyone seems to agree that it’s a mixed bag.

“It’s a first down. I don’t know that it’s a touchdown, but it’s not a loss,” said Campaign Legal Center policy director Meredith McGehee. Reid and Pelosi’s bill retains many key elements of the original House and Senate bills in place. It places limits on lawmakers traveling on corporate jets and partying on lobbyists’ tabs. It also keeps in place the “revolving-door” provisions that require former lawmakers to cool off before becoming lobbyists — two years for senators and one year for representatives. Another important reform, the disclosure of bundled campaign contributions from lobbyists, has come out relatively unscathed. The only change Reid and Pelosi made to the bundling requirements is that lawmakers and candidates will be responsible for reporting them, not the lobbyists. Furthermore, the bill requires lawmakers to file semi-annual reports on lobbyists who bundle together more than $15,000 for them so that that information can be put into a “searchable, sortable and downloadable” online archive.

But one essential element of the bill, the full disclosure of all earmarked spending, didn’t hold up quite as well. N.Z. Bear has a copy (downloadable as a PDF) of the full text of the new bill, and when you compare its “Earmark Reform” section to the corresponding section in the original bill, there are several small changes in language that will make a big difference in how effective a reform the bill is. A Senate aide who has reviewed the language has put together a chart, viewable at Tapscott’s Copy Desk, which points out the key changes. Here’s a closer look at exactly how a couple of the most substantial requirements were altered.

First, the original bill prohibits Senators and staff from promoting earmarks from which they or their families would receive a direct financial benefit. It states that all earmark requests must be accompanied by “a certification that the Member or spouse has no financial interest in such congressional earmark or limited tax or tariff benefit.” The new bill changes that requirement a bit. It reads:

>No Member, officer, or employee of the Senate shall knowingly use his official position to introduce, request, or otherwise aid the progress or passage of congressionally directed spending items [a.k.a. earmark], limited tax benefits, or limited tariff benefits a principal purpose of which is to further only his pecuniary interest, only the pecuniary interest of his immediate family, or only the pecuniary interest of a limited class of persons or enterprises, when he or his immediate family, or enterprises controlled by them are members of the affected class.

The key difference is the addition of the word “only.” As Ed Morrissey points out on the Captain’s Quarters blog, the addition of this word “means that an earmark that raises the value of a member’s property is OK if it raises someone else’s property value, too. It makes the prohibition almost meaningless.”

Second, the original Senate bill requires earmarks in conference reports to be posted online in a searchable format at least 48 hours prior to consideration. Conference reports are the final versions of bills that are voted on by the House and Senate after the differences between the original bills are ironed out by a joint conference committee. These conference reports are where most of the earmarks are listed. Here’s the Senate-passed bill’s disclosure requirement:

>a conference report to accompany a bill or joint resolution unless the joint explanatory statement prepared by the managers on the part of the House and the managers on the part of the Senate includes a list, which shall be made available on the Internet in a searchable format to the general public for at least 48 hours before consideration of the conference report, of congressional earmarks, limited tax benefits, and limited tariff benefits in the conference report or joint statement.

And here is the weaker language that Reid and Pelosi agreed to:

>To the extent technically feasible, information made available on publicly accessible congressional websites under paragraphs 3 and 4 [paragraphs describing earmarks in conference reports and earmarks added as floor amendments]shall be provided in a searchable format.

With non-searchable databases of the earmarks that made it into the finalized versions of bills, lawmakers will be able to more easily hide their spending on pet projects from the public. Their requests will simply blend into the masses.

Senator Jim DeMint (R-SC) is planning to offer an amendment to the new ethics bill that he says will “restore real earmark reform” when it hits the Senate floor later this week. The House of Representatives is expected to take up the measure on Tuesday with the rules suspended, which means that it will not be open to amendments.

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