Lobbying reform? We don’t need no stinkin’ lobbying reform

The momentum is fast going out of Congress’ high-minded commitment to lobbying reform.

One worthwhile reform would be to identify the individual sponsors of earmarks, lawmakers’ pet projects that are inserted, often anonymously, in bills without the normal legislative scrutiny.

And earlier this month the House passed a lobbying bill requiring just that, but final passage depends on slow-moving talks with the Senate. Meanwhile, the lawmakers have reverted to their bad old ways.

Published figures show that the first five spending bills out of the House Appropriations Committee for the next fiscal year starting Oct. 1 totaled $2.4 billion in earmarks, ranging the usual spectrum of inventive local projects _ $1 million to study emissions from henhouses, $800,000 for a heritage corridor, $300,000 for woodpecker research, $2.96 million to replace the lighting in a cave.

The committee boasts that the earmarks in a $30 billion energy and water development bill were down $200 million, or 16 percent over last year, and while that may be progress, over $1 billion in personal pork remains.

Earmarks are not in and of themselves bad _ many of them are valid and valuable local projects that might otherwise be ignored. But there’s general agreement that earmarks have gotten out of control, driving up spending and distorting the budget process. And they are an invitation to corruption. One House member has just gone to jail for accepting bribes to earmark money, and there are said to be other, ongoing federal investigations.

Reformers believe, and with some reason, that making the process transparent by identifying the lawmaker behind a pet project would result in fewer and better-thought-out earmarks. Indeed, members often boast to constituents about their earmarks.

The committee is not identifying earmark sponsors on the grounds that doing so is not yet law, and its members have another objection: All committees, not just theirs, they argue, should have to identify earmarks, especially the Ways and Means Committee, the source of specialized tax pork.

The members have a point. Legislation should not be sponsored in secret. The sponsors of all earmarks should be quickly _ while the bill is in committee or subcommittee _ made known. If a project is not worth defending, it’s not worth paying for.

(Contact Dale McFeatters at McFeattersD(at)SHNS.com)