House passes limited reform of earmark process

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The House voted last night to reform the process by which billions of dollars in government spending are doled out in political favors each year, but the move fell short of the reforms embraced by some conservatives.

The so-called “earmark reform” was part of a much larger bill that overhauled the way lobbyists can try to influence legislation in Congress. The overall bill passed late yesterday on a 217-213 vote.

“This legislation will hold lobbyists and members accountable for their actions,” Majority Whip Roy Blunt, Missouri Republican, said after the vote. “The Lobbying Accountability and Transparency Act will help restore Americans’ trust in their legislature, and I’m pleased a bipartisan group voted to solve a bipartisan problem.”

The bill would require that legislators report their associations with lobbyists more frequently, suspend privately funded travel and require ethics training for all congressional employees.

Republican leaders touted the measure as a fix to abuses such as those that led to the bribery conviction of former Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham, the California Republican who was sentenced to eight years in prison this year for inserting government contracts into legislation on behalf of a defense contractor who in return provided Cunningham and his family with a lavish lifestyle.

The most significant aspects of the bill dealt with changes to the ways lawmakers insert “earmarks” or “pork” projects into bills on behalf of constituents and political allies. The legislation would require greater disclosure about those special projects, including the name of the sponsoring member of Congress. Lawmakers now can insert the earmarks anonymously.

The bill fell short, however, of requiring each earmark to face a vote on the House floor as many conservatives wanted. Still, conservatives called it a victory.

“But as we change the way lobbyists spend their money, this Congress also understands that we must change the way we spend the money of the American people,” said Rep. Mike Pence, Indiana Republican. “Understanding that you can’t complain about the sharks when you’re holding a bucket of chum, this bill contains historic and significant budget reforms.”

Democrats opposed the bill, saying it does not go far enough toward curbing the influence of lobbyists on members of Congress.

“The scope of what this bill doesn’t do is stunning,” said Rep. Louise M. Slaughter, New York Democrat.

Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer, Maryland Democrat, said the bill will do little to improve the image of the Republican Party, which has been tarnished by scandals such as an association with casino lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

“Who do our Republican friends believe they are fooling today with this so-called lobbying ‘reform’ bill?” he said. “I submit: not a soul. Not the American people.”

Mr. Hoyer added, “The greed and flagrant abuses of convicted felons, former Republican member Duke Cunningham and Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff, hang over this House like a dark cloud.”

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