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Earmark Holes

Congress deserves lots of credit for passing earmark disclosure measures that shine considerable light on this once-concealed font of corruption. But, ever-imaginative, Members still find ways to tiptoe in the darkness.

The new disclosure procedures — embodied in House rules passed at the outset of the new Congress and applied to the Senate in the lobbying and ethics reform bill — this week enabled Roll Call and Taxpayers for Common Sense to unearth the cozy earmark connection between three senior Democratic lawmakers and a lobbying firm that raises much of their campaign funds.

Certification letters required by the new rules — whereby Members attest that they have no personal financial stake in the earmarks they sponsor — made it possible to identify Reps. John Murtha (Pa.), Jim Moran (Va.) and Peter Visclosky (Ind.) as sponsors of 36 projects in the Defense appropriations bill — worth $101.5 million — going to clients of PMA Group, which has raised 26 percent of the campaign funds collected by the three this cycle.

There is no evidence that any laws or House rules were broken here, but earmark disclosure requirements — and demonstrated corruption by others, notably ex-Rep. Duke Cunningham (R-Calif.) — have cut the number of House earmarks by half this year.

We’re not among those who think that all earmarks should be banned — after all, Members are sent here to meet the needs of their constituents — but too often requests have more to do with aiding Members’ fundraising sources than providing for the folks back home. The new disclosure rules now make it possible to sort one from the other. They enable the public to hold Members accountable and empower other Members to challenge spending proposals.

But holes exist in both the accountability and challenge systems. The Senate’s “hotlining” procedure — designed to pass noncontroversial bills and procedural motions — is now being used to pass funding authorizations with next to no notice to other Senators. And House Members have begun earmarking by placing denial-of-funds language in appropriations bills.

As Roll Call reported on Monday, prior to the August recess Senate leaders “hotlined” more than 150 bills in less than a week, some containing millions of dollars in spending, giving Senators as little as 15 minutes to object. In the House, denial-of-funds language was used by Visclosky to take a Corps of Engineers dredging boat out of commission so that private companies could bid for its work.

Moreover, Taxpayers for Common Sense complains that House Appropriations subcommittees are reporting earmarks in varying formats, separating project information from requester data and failing to place request letters online. “The process of figuring out who is spending our money on what is still too much like a scavenger hunt,” the group said. “The changes made this year provide a welcome window into earmarking practices, but it’s still a dirty window. There is still a lot we can’t see.” Will it take another Duke Cunningham scandal to let the light fully in?

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