WASHINGTON—Just weeks after declaring themselves fiscal and ethical reformers, lawmakers are adding billions of dollars in special projects to a spending bill for the Iraq war while retreating from some of the lobbying restrictions they'd once touted as the antidote to a spate of scandals.
The House of Representatives is scheduled to vote Thursday on a package of ethics rules and measures designed to cut back on "earmarks," the special pork-barrel spending projects that routinely festoon congressional appropriations.
Government watchdog groups dismiss the House ethics proposals as cosmetic changes, but because some senior Republicans oppose even those as too binding, the outcome of the vote remained in doubt Wednesday.
In the Senate, lawmakers are working their way through a $106.5 billion bill that would pay for the war in Iraq and for hurricane-related costs. But the Senate version is $14.5 billion more than President Bush requested and could grow even bigger, larded with money for lawmakers' pet causes.
The White House this week threatened to veto the bill if it exceeded Bush's request. It made a special point of objecting to a $700 million railroad relocation in Mississippi added by the state's two Republican senators, Trent Lott and Thad Cochran. On Wednesday, 35 Senate Republicans sent a letter to Bush pledging to vote to sustain his veto if he casts it, enough to ensure that it would stick.
But moments later, 15 of those senators, including Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., voted to keep the Mississippi money in the bill by a cliff-hanging 49-48 vote. Earlier Wednesday, an effort to match the bill to Bush's original proposal failed 72-26.
Congress' continued appetite for unchecked spending and backpedaling on ethics illustrates how hard it is to change behavior that's ingrained in Washington's political culture. Many lawmakers believe that changing ethics rules would criminalize innocent conduct. Many lawmakers also believe that they—not government bureaucrats— know best how to spend federal money back home.
"My leadership doesn't think we have an ethics problem and doesn't believe in reform," said Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., one of the leading Republican advocates for tighter ethics rules. The pending legislation, Shays said, "has no redeeming feature."
Recent guilty pleas by lobbyist Jack Abramoff and former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham, R-Calif., have spotlighted the crossroads of ethics and special-interest spending.
"Earmarks are the currency of corruption," said Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz.
The House bill would give lawmakers new powers to challenge legislation that contains earmarks, but advocates of more sweeping changes wanted to block members altogether from being able to add such individual spending items to bills. The proposed restrictions would apply only to appropriations bills, not tax or policy legislation, which also often contains special-interest favors.
The Republican chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, Jerry Lewis of California, objects to restrictions on earmarks that affect only appropriations bills. Appropriators point out that another infamous spending proposal—the so-called $230 million "bridge to nowhere" in Alaska—was inserted into a massive transportation policy bill. It was eliminated only after a deluge of national publicity led the Senate to strike it.
Critics of the House bill say it also falls short on restricting lawmakers' access to privately paid travel and to corporate jets. The House legislation temporarily bans privately funded travel through the November election, but provides no permanent remedy.
Lawmakers currently reimburse corporations for use of their aircraft at a rate equal to that of a first-class ticket. But the cost of a corporate jet is significantly higher, amounting to a contribution to members of Congress. The legislation simply prohibits a company lobbyist from accompanying a lawmaker on such a flight.
Rep. David Dreier, R-Calif., the chairman of the House Rules Committee and lead author of the House bill, defended it as a "bold package of reform." He noted that former members of Congress who are lobbyists would no longer be allowed in the House gym or on the House floor and that lobbyists would have to disclose their clients and issues of interest with more frequency.
In the Senate, the spending bill for the Iraq war and the hurricane aftermath is considered "must pass" emergency legislation. That means it can't be blocked easily through parliamentary maneuvers. As a result, the bill has become a popular bipartisan vehicle for additional spending.
One of the biggest extra provisions was inserted by Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., whose ties to Abramoff have made his race for re-election difficult. Burns inserted $3.9 billion to help farmers hurt by any natural disaster, not just last year's hurricanes. The money includes aid to offset the high costs of oil, making agriculture one of the few industries to get energy-related assistance.
"No other industry in this country buys retail, sells wholesale and pays freight both ways," Burns said.
The Senate did manage to show a bit of restraint Wednesday. It tacked on to the bill $1.9 billion for border security while reducing military spending by a similar amount, but that was an exception.
Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour was in the Capitol on Wednesday lobbying for the $700 million to relocate a railroad line inland from the coast and build a highway to correct coastal bottlenecks. Critics have come to call the project "the railroad to nowhere."
"A lot of people get focused on the railroad who don't understand the purpose of moving the railroad is so we can replace it with a highway," Barbour said.
Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., a staunch critic of earmarks, offered an amendment Wednesday to eliminate 19 earmarks, including the Mississippi railroad, from the bill.
"This is a good plan in Mississippi," he said. "It's just not a plan that the people of the rest of the country ... ought to be asked to do."
Though the Senate voted to retain the railroad provision, Coburn intends to ask for specific votes on the remaining 18 earmarks.
(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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