Ethics reform bill is more show than go

Lawmakers who deliver money for hometown pet projects — what Americans call “pork” — would have to be publicly identified under an election-year ethics bill passed by the U.S. House of Representatives on Thursday.

By a vote of 245-171, the House amended its operating rules so that the names of sponsors of such “earmarks” must be listed in legislation.

The measure was the second ethics-related bill to pass the House within 24 hours as Republicans who control it try to neutralize Democrats’ charges of corruption in Congress.

“We are blowing away the fog of anonymity so the public can have a clear picture of what the projects are, how much they cost and who is sponsoring them,” said Rep. David Dreier, a California Republican who has overseen ethics reform efforts.

Over the past year, a California Republican representative pleaded guilty to accepting $2.4 million in bribes in exchange for help in securing defense contracts and lobbyist Jack Abramoff, with close ties to House Republican leaders, pleaded guilty to fraud charges.

Rep. Louise Slaughter of New York, the senior Democrat on the House Rules Committee, called the reform “a deceptive bill that is riddled with loopholes.”

She and other Democrats complained that the changes would not apply to several kinds of legislation, including corporate giveaways in tax bills, and much of this year’s spending.

The liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities also said the Republican rules change left too many special-interest projects unrestricted.

“Any tax cut or tax break benefiting as few as two individuals or entities, such as two large multinational corporations, would be fully exempt,” the group said.

The explosive growth in recent years of “pork,” which fattens the size of money-bills and other legislation, has come under attack by critics who say the special-interest funds have added billions of dollars to U.S. debt for sometimes questionable projects.

The taxpayer funds often are secretly tucked into bills, sometimes at the last-minute in response to lobbyists’ requests.

The earmarks have ranged from money for a rock ‘n’ roll music hall of fame in Cleveland to a widely mocked “bridge to nowhere” in Alaska.

Democrats hope that in November elections they will capture the 15 additional seats they need to win control of the House. Republican leaders, sensing political trouble early this year, promised to enact wide-ranging ethics reforms.

But as other issues, notably national security, gained greater prominence, Republicans have scaled back their ethics agenda to pursue narrow reforms. Momentum for ethics reform also stalled because of divisions among Republicans.

On Wednesday, the House passed a bill establishing a new Web site to make it easier to track which companies win government contracts and grants.

Other critics of the earmark reform argued it provides no mechanism for deleting suspect funds from bills and might actually embolden lawmakers to seek such money so they can brag to constituents about projects they have delivered home.

© Reuters 2006