Targeting earmarks

John Dimsdale Jan 17, 2007

KAI RYSSDAL: It’s five down, one to go for House Democrats. The House took up student loans this afternoon. It voted to cutting interest rates on them in half. The last of their 100 hours promises — cutting oil subsidies — will come up tomorrow.

Over on the other side of the Capitol, meanwhile, the Senate’s still debating its first agenda item of the year. An ethics reform package that would ban trips and dinners and gifts from lobbyists. It’s also got something to say about earmarks, those pet spending projects and tax breaks that lawmakers sneak into federal budget bills.

Our Washington bureau chief John Dimsdale has more now on the effort to bring earmarks out in the open.

JOHN DIMSDALE: The Senate ethics reform bill requires lawmakers to own up to their pet projects before any bill can be brought up for a floor vote. When critics pointed to disclosure loopholes in the original bill, senators this week toughened up the language to bring it in line with the House-passed measure.

Even the sponsor of the original bill, Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, concedes the changes are for the better.

HARRY REID: In effect, we’ve combined the best ideas from both sides of the aisle, Democrat and Republican, to establish the strongest possible disclosure rules. Once we’re done, the Senate earmark rules will be even stronger than those recently adopted by the House.

Ethics reform advocates around Washington say they’re pleased with the teeth senators and representatives have put in their respective bills. But Ryan Alexander of the budget watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense says the effectiveness of the new rules still depends on enforcement.

RYAN ALEXANDER: We got to where we are right now because there were abuses of the earmark process. That could have been stopped if people had been willing to call other members out and pay closer attention. And they can all argue, I think reasonably, that they didn’t always have the information because the process was so untransparent.

Even though senators adopted their tough earmark disclosures unanimously, there was one word of caution from the longest serving senator, Democrat Robert Byrd of West Virginia.

Byrd warned that cutting back on congressional earmarks gives more budget power to unelected bureaucrats in the executive branch.

ROBERT BYRD: I say to senators that we’re treading on some dangerous constitutional grounds with this bombast against earmarks. The misguided cries to do away with earmarks have constitutional ramifications about who controls the power of the purse.

Senate leaders are promising a final vote on the ethics reform bill this week. Pending amendments include more disclosure of campaign contributions made by lobbyists, plus a ban on congressional spouses working as lobbyists on Capitol Hill.

In Washington, I’m John Dimsdale for Marketplace.

There’s a lot happening in the world.  Through it all, Marketplace is here for you. 

You rely on Marketplace to break down the world’s events and tell you how it affects you in a fact-based, approachable way. We rely on your financial support to keep making that possible. 

Your donation today powers the independent journalism that you rely on. For just $5/month, you can help sustain Marketplace so we can keep reporting on the things that matter to you.