Members find earmark reform necessary, but messy

The House ethics committee is grappling with how it should interpret the new rules governing earmarks and explain what is legal and ethical, and what is not.

“It is a particularly difficult issue to legislate because it is entering new territory,” said Meredith McGehee, director of policy at the Campaign Legal Center, an ethics watchdog group. “It’s a messy process overall, but it’s quite healthy.”

Last week, House Appropriations Chairman David Obey (D-Wis.) issued a “Dear Colleague” letter to members extending the deadline to file earmark requests from March 16 to April 27. While the letter indicated that guidance had been given to members in a draft form, nothing in fact had been issued to lawmakers.

“It was a simple mistake,” said Obey spokeswoman Kirstin Brost. “We have been advising members with questions to call the ethics committee.”

Nadeam Elshami, a spokesman for Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), said that the Speaker hopes the panel “will reach a decision as soon as possible.”

Under the rules, the Speaker may not interfere with matters concerning the ethics committee.

Last year, Republicans passed legislation that required members submitting earmarks to attach their names to the request.
In their ethics package, Democrats took the reform several steps further, requiring that lawmakers not only attach their names to the request but certify that neither they nor their spouse have a financial interest in the measure.

Members began expressing confusion with the language in the ethics bill in February, and several asked the ethics committee to clarify exactly what the term “earmark” means.

A Democratic aide attributed the delay in clarification to ethics committee Co-Chairman Doc HastingsRichard (Doc) Norman HastingsCongress just resolved a 20-year debate over Neolithic remains Boehner hires new press secretary GOP plots new course on Endangered Species Act reform MORE (R-Wash.), who had not approved the guidelines even though they were finished on March 22.

A Republican leadership aide refuted those claims.

The ethics committee did not return several calls for comment.

Thomas A. Schatz, president of the watchdog group Citizens Against Government Waste, says he remains skeptical about the effect that the Democratic ethics package will have on earmarks. He pointed to the $23 billion in earmark-rich, non-war spending in the House’s Iraq supplemental bill as an example. But he added that the real test is the upcoming 2008 appropriations cycle.

More broadly, Schatz said, the new ethics bill was still a step in the right direction.

“The Democratic [earmark provisions] have changed the rules significantly,” he said.

The Democratic rules define an earmark as a member-related project that is targeted for a specific area and “falls outside of a formula-driven or competitive award process.” In addition, earmarks may not be traded for votes.

House Republicans have lambasted Democrats for the number of clarifications they have issued since they rolled out the package in January. Those changes include new guidance on member travel and gift rules. But the new rules continue to generate angst among lawmakers and their spouses.

Last Wednesday, the ethics committee held a briefing for congressional spouses, in which participants raised a number of uncomfortable questions about what is allowed under the new rules — such as whether spouses may accept the gift bag at the First Ladies Luncheon hosted by the Congressional Wives Club, or whether lawmakers may go to the March of Dimes’s Gala dinner.

As for the clarifications that are still forthcoming, McGehee said such tweaks are “pretty common.”

Despite the revisions and painstaking work on the ethics language, she added, the benefits reaped by reforming the system would make it worth the labor.

Given that one person’s earmark is another person’s pork project, she said, it could take Congress a while to perfect the earmark portion of the ethics package.

“I thought it was good to push back some of the deadlines,” she said. “It’s a knotty process — it [could] take Congress [some time] to work its way through it.”

Jonathan E. Kaplan contributed to this story.