Still a `favor factory'

April 03, 2006

By Senate standards, the ethics legislation overwhelmingly approved last week was a big deal.

For the first time, senators agreed to pick up the check for their own meals when they dine with lobbyists, and to forgo lavish gifts such as hot tickets to sporting events. They also eliminated a little of the secret mumbo-jumbo that allows them to do the bidding of benefactors without anybody being the wiser.

But the legislation falls so far short of reforms promised in the wake of two major influence-peddling scandals that broke early this year, it's clear lawmakers are gambling voters won't remember the scandals or the promises well enough to register much dismay in the fall elections.

The "earmark favor factory," as convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff described one of the most corruptible features of the legislative process, could remain in full production under the Senate bill. House action isn't expected to be any tougher.

Lawmakers are loath to give up an informal perk of office that allows them to unilaterally attach spending proposals or policy language to legislation behind closed doors. Often these are much-trumpeted goodies for the homefolks. But sometimes they are quiet favors for a friendly lobbyist not discovered until long after they become law.

Such earmarks add enormously to the cost of federal spending each year - $64 billion in fiscal 2006 - without any consideration of the merits of these items compared with what else might be done with the money. Their vulnerability to corruption was aptly demonstrated by former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham, who used earmarks to direct business to contractors whose lobbyists plied him with gifts. Montana Sen. Conrad Burns is reportedly under federal investigation, in part for allegedly using the earmark process to direct $3 million to an Indian tribe represented by Mr. Abramoff, who responded with campaign contributions to the senator.

Yet the Senate resisted attempts to require that such items - as well as last-minute provisions to legislation never approved by either the House or Senate - would be easy to identify and remove. No one but a handful of mavericks really wants that kind of reform.

If the ongoing federal investigation yields further indictments before the November elections, a new enthusiasm for reform may take hold. But by then, voters may have decided it's too late.

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