House Dems and GOP both claim earmark reform high ground

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U.S. House Democrats and Republicans are in the midst of one-upping each other on the issue of earmarks – the very sort of earmarks that were the subject of a major Center investigation, The Murtha Method, last fall. But this time it’s not about which party can insert the most earmarks for pet projects into legislation. Instead, House members are hurrying to shun earmarks as the politically toxic symbols of inside-the-Beltway corruption and fiscal imprudence. Yet to be seen is whether Senate lawmakers will also swear off earmarks.

Yesterday, the Democratic-run House Appropriations Committee declared that it will not approve any earmarks directed to for-profit companies, and will require audits of earmarks to non-profit groups to prevent any companies “from masquerading as non-profits.” The change is intended for the long term, not just the coming fiscal year appropriation bills, a committee fact sheet notes. Additionally, a new program will be established in the Defense Department to open more contracting opportunities to small companies with no Pentagon connections, and to select winners based on merit, according to the committee.

The announcement was made jointly by Chairman David Obey, D-Wis., and by the new chair of its Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, Norm Dicks, D-Wash. Dicks’ subcommittee is the gatekeeper for the most federal money spent on earmarks.

“If this rule had been in effect last year, it would have resulted in 1,000 fewer earmarks,” according to the committee’s press release.

The defense appropriations bill also contains the most earmarks directed to for-profit companies. Other spending bills largely steer earmarks towards non-profits, said Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., perhaps the most vocal opponent of earmarks in the House.

“It’s not enough to swear off some of the earmarks that lend themselves to corruption – we need to get rid of all earmarks if we have any hope of regaining taxpayers’ trust,” Flake said in a statement yesterday.

Republicans in the House quickly responded by adopting a moratorium on all earmarks for fiscal 2011. The government’s fiscal year begins on Oct. 1. “We’ve taken a big step toward fiscal responsibility. We’ve got a long way to go, but we’re headed in the right direction,” said Flake. “We now need to encourage the Democrats follow our lead.”

A senior Senate Democrat said he was puzzled by the House committee’s move “"I don't believe this policy or ceding authority to the Executive Branch on any spending decision is in the best interests of the Congress or the American people,” said Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, alluding to Congress’ deeply-valued power of the purse.

Inouye, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, held out the example of the Pentagon’s Predator drone to show the unintended consequences that could result from the new House policy. The Predator ‘s development was fueled by earmarks requested by southern California Republicans to General Atomics, a for-profit company with facilities in their districts, according to a Politico article. The drone has become a crucial tool in combating Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Pakistan’s border region with Afghanistan.

The House action “seems to suggest that for-profit entities are corrupt and non-profit entities are above reproach,” Inouye added.

The House crackdown comes after years of scrutiny by news outlets, such as the Center’s Murtha Method stories, which examined links between campaign contributions, earmarks and congressional staffers-turned-lobbyists for recipients of defense earmarks in fiscal years 2008 and 2010. Good government groups have pressed Congress for greater disclosure of information about earmarks, especially after it came to light that former Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham, R-Calif., exchanged earmarks for bribes.

Cunningham’s guilty plea and resulting eight-year sentence in early 2006 is widely considered a factor in Republicans’ loss of majority control of the House in the election later that year. Days after the election, Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., then-poised to become House Speaker, announced: “The American people voted to restore integrity and honesty in Washington, D.C., and the Democrats intend to lead the most honest, most open and most ethical Congress in history.”

But the political climate has shifted since Pelosi’s statement.

Democrats find themselves on the defensive as Republicans lob accusations of fiscal overindulgence ahead of the November election, fully aware of the public’s growing fear of deficits. Earmarks – while a relatively small part of the federal budget – have long been used by some Republicans to showcase government waste, often tinged with questions about ethical impropriety.

Democrats on the House Appropriations Committee are attempting to position themselves as reformers. Underlined and prominently placed in the committee’s fact sheet on the earmark ban is this statement: “Earmarks exploded when the Republican Party took control of the House of Representatives in 1994.” As an example, the fact sheet noted that in 1994, the spending bill for the departments of Labor, Education and Health and Human Services had no earmarks. By 2005, the same annual spending bill had 3,054 earmarks.

However, most of that spending bill’s earmarks went to non-profit companies,, according to Sen. Inouye, who added: “Eliminating for-profit earmarks won't address the growth areas that the House has criticized.”

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