By Susan Crabtree and Roxana Tiron - 03/11/10 01:19 AM EST
Democratic appropriators in the Senate and House are fighting over a ban on earmarks to for-profit companies, throwing a wrench in a House attempt to burnish its ethics record before the midterm elections.
Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), the chairman of the Senate’s Appropriations Committee, slammed House Appropriations Chairman David Obey’s (D-Wis.) moratorium on earmarks to for-profit companies mere hours after Obey announced it on Wednesday.
The prospect of an intra-party battle between the two chambers on earmark reform also could delay the approval of appropriations bills until after the November elections.
Obey and Rep. Norm Dicks (D-Wash.), the newly named chairman of the Appropriations Defense subcommittee, touted their proposal as a huge reform.
“If this rule had been in effect last year, it would have resulted in 1,000 fewer earmarks,” the two House lawmakers said in a statement.
Obey also intimated that the changes are permanent.
“They are intended to be a long-term proposition,” he said.
Just hours later, Inouye argued “it does not make sense” to exclude for-profit companies from congressional earmarks.
“I don’t believe this policy or ceding authority to the executive branch on any spending decision is in the best interests of the Congress or the American people,” Inouye said in a statement. “I am not sure why we should treat for-profit earmarks any differently than nonprofit earmarks.”
The Senate’s top Republican appropriator, Thad Cochran (Miss.), backed Inouye’s opposition to the House plan.
“Congress cannot ignore its constitutional responsibilities to approve the allocation of federal funds,” he said in a statement. “I will continue to work with Chairman Inouye to ensure that the bills reported by the Senate Appropriations Committee are prepared in a transparent manner, conform to federal laws and only approve spending that is in the national interest.”
During a closed-door caucus briefing about the issue, Obey pledged to take on Inouye, according to a Democratic aide who attended the meeting.
“He said he would fight the Senate tooth and nail on this,” the staffer said.
The announcement of a moratorium on earmarks to for-profit companies came a week after Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) floated the idea of a full earmark ban.
House Republican leaders moved to one-up their counterparts by calling on their conference to adopt an immediate moratorium on all earmarks.
GOP leaders released a statement announcing their move Wednesday night; they'll bring the matter to their conference on Thursday.
"We believe the time has come for House Republicans to adopt an immediate, unilateral moratorium on all earmarks, including tax and tariff-related earmarks, and we will support changing the official rules of the House Republican Conference to incorporate such a moratorium when a special conference meeting on the matter takes place Thursday," the GOP leaders said in the statement.
"When Republicans take back the House, we will rein in out-of-control federal spending and bring fundamental change to the process by which Congress spends American taxpayers’ money.”
House GOP Leader John Boehner (Ohio) on Wednesday told his members at a closed-door meeting they would need to "put it all on the line" to win the House, according to sources in attendance.
"I'm glad to get this," he said. "It's a big deal."
Pelosi turned her attention to earmarks as Democrats struggled to regain an ethics advantage after two tough weeks of scandals in which Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) gave up his chairmanship after an ethics committee admonishment and Rep. Eric Massa (D-N.Y.) resigned amid charges that he sexually harassed and groped male staffers.
Separately, watchdogs had scoffed at an ethics committee report that exonerated seven members of the defense-spending panel in a pay-to-play scheme involving the now-defunct PMA Group lobbying firm, earmarks its clients received and campaign contributions.
Even under Obey’s proposal, lawmakers would be able to include earmarks for not-for-profit projects in their districts that could benefit supporters and lead to campaign contributions.
In addition, billions added to the defense bills for existing national security programs under contract with major defense companies such as Boeing, General Dynamics, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman probably would not be affected.
For example, when House appropriators add more funds for Boeing’s C-17 cargo aircraft, they do not disclose them as earmarks. Instead, they are considered programs essential to national security even though none of the funds are requested by the Pentagon. These funds benefit lawmaker districts where the weapons systems are built.
Obey’s announcement rankled some Democrats, who argued against the decision at the closed-door caucus briefing. Roughly 25 members voiced concerns or questions about the proposal, sources said.
One senior appropriator characterized the caucus dissent as an “uprising” and argued that Republicans were the ones who caused the exponential growth of earmarks during their time in the majority, so Democrats should not have to pay for GOP mistakes and corruption.
But other members of the Democratic Caucus appeared to be going along with the plan.
Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio), a member of the Appropriations Defense subcommittee who was cleared in the PMA ethics probe, said she was going to support the ban on for-profit earmarks but argued the corruption problem in Congress would not change without major campaign finance reform.
“I support what they’re doing,” she said. “But it’s insignificant unless it’s coupled with campaign finance reform in terms of the larger corruption problem.”
Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), who once got into a shoving match with Obey on the House floor over an earmark she had requested, said she would go along with the new earmark moratorium because appropriators and other senior Democrats were “getting most of the earmarks anyway.”
Republicans remain deeply divided over how best to overhaul the earmark process. Boehner, House Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.) and Conference Chairman Mike Pence (R-Ind.) don’t request earmarks, but others in the conference argue lawmakers have a constitutional right to do so, as well as a responsibility to their constituents.
If a majority of Republicans vote for a conference-wide earmark moratorium, Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) said that he may not abide by that decision.
“I have serious questions that we may lose an important legislative tool, just so one party or the other can position itself a little better in the political process and at the end of the day, I don’t think it’s going to affect the outcome of the election one wit — on either side.”
As chairman of the Republican’s campaign arm last cycle, Cole regularly butted heads with Boehner.
Cole also challenged Boehner’s argument that an earmark ban could make or break GOP election chances.
“The idea that tinkering around with earmark reform is going to make one difference (in the mid-term elections), is a political fantasy,” he said. “You need to think twice to tamper with a system just to score political points — there’s a lot of that going on on both sides.”
Molly K. Hooper contributed to this report