WASHINGTON -- In one of its first official acts under Democratic control, the House voted 280-152 yesterday to curb the middle-of-the-night, backroom deal-making that resulted in approval of embarrassing - and sometimes illegal - pork barrel projects.
Forty-eight Republicans joined 232 Democrats to require committees to disclose all sponsors of so-called earmarks. The new rules would prohibit lawmakers from trading their votes for spending projects tacked on to legislation, and it would require members to certify that they have no personal financial stake in their requests.
Democrats said they expect the new rules to end many of the excesses that occurred under the Republican majority. The Senate is expected to consider a similar proposal next week.
During the last session of Congress, former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham, a California Republican, wound up in prison after using earmarks to steer Pentagon contracts to a defense contractor who had bought Cunningham's home for $700,000 more than market value. Cunningham pleaded guilty to taking more than $2.5 million in bribes.
Alaska Republicans Sen. Ted Stevens and Rep. Don Young famously pushed for more than $223 million in federal funds to pay for a bridge to the isolated island of Gravina, population 50, resulting in the derisive moniker "bridge to nowhere." The proposal died after the earmark was exposed.
And Rep. Vernon J. Ehlers, a Michigan Republican, earned himself the "Flushing Our Money Down the Toilet Award" from Citizens Against Government Waste. He had set aside $1 million for the Waterfree Urinal Conservation Initiative, instructing the Navy to learn more about water-free urinals, something that could have benefited a company in Ehlers' district.
"When the Republican Congress took over in 1995, throughout the entire federal budget, [there were] 1,400 earmarks," said Rep. Rahm Emanuel, an Illinois Democrat. "At the end of the Republican Congress, there were 13,997 earmarks."
Emanuel, chairman of the Democratic Caucus, said a lobbyist once called earmarks "an ATM for lobbyists." That, he said, would stop.
Republicans acknowledged yesterday that the increase in embarrassing earmarks gave them a bad reputation among voters when it came to fiscal discipline. And some said the earmark abuses by Cunningham and others fed into the notion that Republicans were corrupt.
"This is one of the ways we got into a heap of trouble," said Rep. Ray LaHood, an Illinois Republican, who said he was never embarrassed or ashamed of any of the projects for his district that he attached to legislation.
To be sure, Republicans voted for a somewhat similar proposal at the end of last year in a last-ditch attempt to improve their image with voters. It didn't appear to impress them, and it didn't impress such opponents of pork-barrel projects as Rep. Jeff Flake, an Arizona Republican.
"Bully for the Democrats," Flake said. "They did what we didn't have the guts to do when it matters."
Flake placed some of the blame for the runaway earmarks with President Bush. The president, he said, could easily instruct federal agencies not to enforce Congress' instructions unless they are placed inside the legislative text, rather than in an accompanying report. If Congress were forced to do that, the earmarks would be exposed and the president could veto the bill.
"Some of us have been begging him to do this for years," Flake said.
Some advocates for reining in federal spending say it's nice to shine a light on some of the silliness that passes for earmarks, but the move will do little to save money. Earmarks make up about 1 percent to 2 percent of all federal discretionary money spent each year. Where the federal budget faces its biggest challenge is in the runaway growth of entitlement programs, such as Medicare and Social Security.
"The deficit hawk in me doesn't look at it and say, `Gosh, this is going to save a lot of money,'" said Robert Bixby, executive director of the Concord Coalition, an organization that promotes fiscal responsibility.
House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, a Maryland Democrat, said he hopes the new rules will halve the number of earmarks each year. In part, that may come from the public scrutiny implicit in attaching a name to a project.
Jill Zuckman writes for the Chicago Tribune.