WASHINGTON – The House changed its rules Thursday to require lawmakers to identify the special projects they slip into legislation, a modest step toward restoring the reputation of Congress in a year of ethical lapses and scandals involving relations with lobbyists.
The change, in effect only through year’s end, is aimed at curtailing a practice whereby lawmakers anonymously insert “earmarks” – narrowly tailored spending that often helps a specific company or project in their district – into bills.
President Bush said in a statement the bill would make sure “lawmakers and the public are better informed before Congress votes to spend the taxpayers’ money.”
Democrats disparaged the measure, citing the failure of the Republican-led Congress to pass more comprehensive legislation to clean up lawmaker relations with lobbyists.
The rules change “will do little more than to get Republicans through the November elections,” said Rep. Louise Slaughter of New York, top Democrat on the House Rules Committee.
GOP Rep. Jeff Flake of Arizona, a leading critic of special interest spending, said: “I’m under no illusion that this legislation, which deals only with the issue of transparency, will solve the problem of earmarking. But this bill does represent an important first step.”
Citizens Against Government Waste, a taxpayer watchdog group, said there were 9,963 such projects in the spending bills for the 2006 budget year, costing $29 billion.
The 245-171 vote on the rule change came a day after Congress sent to President Bush a bill intended to make government spending more open to public scrutiny. Under that bill, the government will set up by 2008 a Google-like search engine so people can track hundreds of billions of dollars in grants and contracts that are awarded every year.
But there is no prospect for progress on more comprehensive lobbying and ethics overhaul. That had been highlighted as an urgent task at the beginning of the year after several lawmakers were tied to illegal or unsavory actions, particularly with disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff.
The House and Senate last spring passed bills that would have required lobbyists to be more open about their activities; put limits on gifts and meals from lobbyists and travel involving lobbyists; slowed the movement of lawmakers leaving office for lobbying jobs; provided ethics training to staff and members; and ended anonymous earmarks.
The effort at a compromise stalled over a House provision to limit donations to independent political groups known as 527s for the section of tax law under which they are registered. Such groups tend to be more helpful to Democrats; Senate Democrats objected to a lobbying bill that also takes up campaign finance limits.