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By MARGARET TALEV
The Republican-led House of Representatives will vote this week on two measures that could help reveal who’s behind billions of dollars in pork-barrel spending each year.
That could help Republicans appeal to fiscally conservative voters who are frustrated by Congress’s runaway spending and threatening to stay home from the polls in November.
Taxpayer-watchdog groups praise the sentiment behind House Majority Leader John Boehner’s decision to schedule these votes, but he’s being squeezed between lawmakers who are reluctant to cede power and critics who say the legislation doesn’t respond forcefully enough to a spate of congressional corruption scandals.
The first measure, approved by the Senate and slated for final House approval on Wednesday, would create a centralized, online search engine for government contracts, making it easier for the public to track who’s receiving government dollars and how the money is being spent.
The second, a proposed change to House rules, would identify the lawmakers behind special-interest projects known as "earmarks."
Tens of thousands of earmarks are tucked anonymously into massive spending and tax bills each year. Citizens Against Government Waste identified 13,997 earmarks worth $27.3 billion in appropriations bills last year alone. Critics of pork-barrel politics say that attaching lawmakers’ names to earmarks could curb abuses of the process, although lawmakers often trumpet the earmarks they win for projects when they think their constituents or contributors want them.
Boehner, R-Ohio, said Tuesday that the two measures are a start but don’t eliminate the need for more comprehensive lobbying reform after the conviction of ex-Rep. Duke Cunningham, R-Calif., on bribery charges; the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal that’s touched several members of Congress; and a corruption investigation into Rep. William Jefferson, D-La., who’s accused of stashing a $90,000 in cash in a freezer.
"If you look at the members who’ve gotten themselves in trouble, it was over the illicit use of earmarks," Boehner said. "I just think that bringing transparency and accountability to this process is in everyone’s best interests."
Some campaign-finance watchdogs consider these proposals a diversion, however.
Tom Schatz, the president of Citizens Against Government Waste, said of the House plans: "It’s better than nothing. It should provide a lot more transparency. Whether it means they’ll be more accountable and do less remains to be seen."
Lobbying reform legislation has stalled in negotiations between the House and Senate. Critics say neither chamber has gone far enough to cut down on lawmakers’ financial relationships with lobbyists.
Details of the House earmark proposal were still changing Tuesday, but there appeared to be some loopholes, especially in identifying lawmakers behind projects in tax and authorization bills, as opposed to appropriations measures.
That drew fire from members of the House Appropriations Committee, who don’t want the burden of disclosure to fall disproportionately on them. "We have strong support among our members as long as it applies across the board," said committee spokesman John Scofield.