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With ban, GOP calls duel on earmarks

- The Washington Times - Friday, March 12, 2010

In a move to break with the GOP's big-spending past, House Republicans voted Thursday to ban their members this year from requesting earmarks, the pork-barrel spending that directs money to pet projects in home districts.

The Republicans, who passed the moratorium by voice vote in a closed-door meeting, said they have now put pressure on the rest of Congress - Republicans in the Senate, and Democrats in both chambers - to follow their lead.

"Today, House Republicans took an important step toward showing the American people we're serious about reform by adopting an immediate, unilateral ban on all earmarks," said House Minority Leader John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, adding that this was just a first step in a broader fight to control overall spending.

Earmarks account for less than 1 percent of federal spending, but have become symbolic of the worst abuses of Congress, with ex-members serving prison time for trading earmarks for gifts and with projects such as Alaska's infamous "Bridge to Nowhere" becoming fodder for comics.

House Republicans' moratorium seemed to catch Democrats off guard. Some predicted that the ban wouldn't pass and others said they are comfortable with the record they've built in bringing transparency to the earmark process.

Since taking control of Congress in 2007, Democrats have prohibited members from benefiting personally from earmarks and have required every earmark request to be posted on a member's Web site. The transparency has provided watchdog groups with invaluable information to track the formerly murky process.

On Wednesday, House Democrats announced another new rule, one to ban earmarks to for-profit companies.

"I was here during a period of time when the Republicans were in the majority. They did zero, nothing, when it came to reform in the earmark process," said Rep. Chris Van Hollen, Maryland Democrat. "They talked for years, but never did anything."

House Republicans said their ban applies to all earmarks, whether in spending, tax or authorization bills. It lasts through the rest of this year.

"Merry Christmas and happy birthday," said Rep. Jeff Flake, Arizona Republican, who for years has conducted a lonely fight against earmarks.

Mr. Flake said Republican leaders will enforce the ban by refusing to forward any earmark requests from their members to the committees that write the bills.

Senate Republicans will hold their own meeting to decide what policy to adopt toward earmarks, but most Democrats and Republicans in the upper chamber have been supporters of the practice.

Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Daniel K. Inouye, Hawaii Democrat, said the House has had some serious earmark abuses but that the Senate has been free of those.

"I understand the reasons why the House might feel it is necessary to adjust its practices in light of previous problems in that body. The policies that the Appropriations Committee has adopted for the Senate safeguard the Senate's constitutional role in directing spending decisions while ensuring transparency and strict control on the practice of earmarking," he said.

A recent House ethics report said an appearance of impropriety has arisen over earmarks to for-profit companies.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, said Democrats had been working toward a ban on for-profit earmarks even before that report.

Still, she defended some of those for-profit earmarks, particularly to small defense companies that are developing cutting-edge technology.

"These companies can't compete with the big defense contractors, so they come to us to say, 'Can you get this in?' "

Mrs. Pelosi said lawmakers will create an innovation fund at the Defense Department to try to make sure those companies still get federal seed money.

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