House GOP and the favor factory

The party that took control of the House in 1994 to "clean up Washington" will try to clean up its own leadership Thursday. This House GOP election will be telling on a key issue: Can Congress rein in abuse of its spending on behalf of special interests?

Three candidates are running for the most powerful party position, majority leader, the post vacated by Tom DeLay in part because of his ties to lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Of the three, John Shadegg of Arizona is most vocal about an increasing tendency to target federal money for a particular congressional district, or for a private group, company, or industry represented by powerful lobbying firms.

Mr. Abramoff, who pled guilty over his lobbying activities, often referred to the House Appropriations Committee (the primary spending spigot) as the "favor factory." But it's in the late stages of the legislative process that lobbyists and lawmakers often try to have spending items "earmarked" quietly for their clients or districts - doing so furtively and at the last minute.

This type of earmarking (a term derived from the tagging of farm animals such as pigs) is the worst type of pork-barrel spending, for at least three reasons:

Earmarking can lead to outright corruption, as seen in the recent guilty plea of former Rep. Duke Cunningham for bribery over an earmark of money for his district. It's been a tool of coercion by House leaders who dispense earmark spending only to lawmakers who support the leadership in critical votes. And it's helped raise the federal deficit to the point where the Federal Reserve warns that US red ink is contributing to higher interest rates and thus a slower economy.

Mr. Shadegg, like many House reformers, wants the traditional practice of earmarking to be done in the open, with individual items decided on their merits by the entire House. Often, earmarks are valid for a particular cause or an area of the country that needs money. But earmarks have run amok in the past decade, especially in highway spending, with thousands of them passed each year for both Republican and Democratic lawmakers.

In the Senate, Republican Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Tom Coburn of Oklahoma want a change in Senate rules that would require a vote on each spending item. "American taxpayers are entitled to a more thorough debate and disclosure about how their money is being spent," the senators wrote their colleagues.

Such a step would help reduce the power of lobbyists, who often raise campaign money for members of Congress if they slip an earmark into a bill that benefits a lobbyist's client.

Some lawmakers suggest merely capping the number of earmarks for each member. But such a restraint would likely lead to each earmark merely growing larger in spending.

Earmarks need transparency and time for debate to make sure each item is competitively weighed on its merits. That will reduce the value of earmarks as an instrument of control by House leaders and curb one incentive for taking campaign donations from special interests (not to mention outright bribes).

The GOP gets another chance to clean up Congress. Perhaps this time it can make its reforms stick.

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