Democrats ban earmarks to for-profit companies as GOP leaders urge complete moratorium

By Andrew Taylor, AP
Wednesday, March 10, 2010

House GOP leaders press earmark moratorium

WASHINGTON — House GOP leaders are pushing rank-and-file Republicans to break their addiction to pet projects by going cold turkey and giving up the long-cherished practice of directing federal dollars to their home districts.

The move is an election-year appeal to voters frustrated with Washington’s free-spending ways and seeks to trump new reforms announced earlier Wednesday by Democratic leaders. Democrats announced they would ban the much-criticized practice of using annual spending bills to direct pet projects to companies that often return the favor with campaign contributions. Democratic leaders considered — and dismissed — the idea of a complete earmark ban.

The competing maneuvers come as both parties are seeking every possible advantage heading into midterm elections in which Republicans stand to make major gains and possibly retake control of the House. Earmarks are but one reason Congress suffers from abysmal approval ratings, however, and lawmakers in both parties engage in the practice.

“The time has come for House Republicans to adopt an immediate, unilateral moratorium on all earmarks,” said Minority Leader John Boehner of Ohio and nine other GOP leaders in a joint statement Wednesday evening.

In the Senate, however, the old guard in both parties was having none of it.

“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,” Inouye said.

Earlier Wednesday, Rep. David Obey, D-Wis., chairman of the Appropriations panel, told reporters that he hopes the ban on earmarks to companies that make profits will mean 1,000 fewer earmarks and break the linkage between campaign contributions and earmarks that has sparked criticism and resulted in ethics probes of several lawmakers.

The election-year moves in the House come after the ethics committee investigated seven members of a Pentagon spending panel for rewarding earmarks to companies whose executives and hired lobbyists showered them with campaign cash. The panel found no linkage and absolved the lawmakers.

But the move brought strong opposition from Senate Appropriations panel chair Inouye, D-Hawaii, a long-standing defender of earmarking. He issued a tartly worded response defending the current system and calling Obey’s move “quizzical.”

“Congress cannot ignore its constitutional responsibilities to approve the allocation of federal funds,” said GOP Sen. Thad Cochran of Mississippi, one of Congress’ most aggressive practitioners of earmarking.

House Republicans will vote among themselves Thursday on whether to give up earmarks.

The subject of earmarks has over the years brought criticism of Congress that’s often generated by earmarks such as the $200 million-plus “Bridge to Nowhere” in Alaska, a proposed but later abandoned bridge connecting the city of Ketchikan to an island with about 50 residents and an airport.

Among congressional watchdogs the more odious element has been the pay-to-play culture in which campaign cash flows from earmark beneficiaries into the coffers of lawmakers.

“For-profit earmarks are really where the rubber meets the road as far as corruption,” said Steve Ellis of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a Washington-based watchdog group that has been critical of earmarking.

The most commonly accepted definition of an earmark is a specific project that’s not requested by the president but inserted into one of the annual spending bills by a member of Congress. They come in countless varieties, like grants to police departments, improvements to military bases, renovations to historic buildings and research grants for home-district colleges.

But at issue in the Democratic edict are earmarks aimed at for-profit entities, especially those who are seeking to tap into the Pentagon’s $600 billion-plus budget. Many if not most of such companies hire lobbyists to navigate the process and it’s common for both company executives and the hired lobbyist to give campaign cash to lawmakers that sponsor their earmarks.

Critics said that the ethics committee turned a blind eye to a corrupt system when dismissing an investigation that the seven lawmakers broke House rules when funneling earmarks to a lobbying firm that was some blatant in tying campaign contributions from firm lobbyists and their clients to winning earmarks.

Critics said the ethics committee report was a whitewash.

“Simply because a member sponsors an earmark for an entity that also happens to be a campaign contributor does not, on these two facts alone, support a claim that a member’s actions are being influenced by campaign contributions,” the ethics panel found.

“It’s just ridiculous on its face,” Ellis countered

The moratorium on earmarks to corporations and for-profit companies comes as a series of scandals has hurt Democrats politically. Rep. Charles Rangel was admonished by the ethics committee late last month over corporate-funded trips — with more serious charges still pending — while the resignation of former Rep. Eric Massa, D-N.Y., after sexual harassment allegations has also harmed the Democrats’ political standing.

Last year’s defense appropriations bill contained 1,720 earmarks worth $4.2 billion, according to Taxpayers for Common Sense, which constructs a database using disclosures required under rules put in place when Democrats took over Congress.

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