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Republicans, Democrats jockey on earmark reform

House Democrats consider an ethics board, and Republicans adopt reform standards.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / February 13, 2008

Pushing for reforms: House Republicans proposed a select committee on earmark reform at a briefing last November. The idea went down in a vote last week.

Andy Nelson – staff/file



It's shaping up to be a lean year for pork-barrel spending on Capitol Hill, as both congressional and presidential earmarks face new scrutiny in an election year.

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Delivering the bacon to constituents back home used to be a net gain for politicians, but it's emerging as a key theme in campaign ads that attack incumbents for waste or corruption. Now, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are grappling with how far to push curbs on the practice in the spending cycle for fiscal year 2009 and beyond.

House Republicans opened a new front in the war on earmarks last week when they proposed a moratorium on them, and then forced a floor vote on it. The measure, which also called for a bipartisan select committee to overhaul the process, failed 204 to 196, with all but seven Democrats voting in opposition. "We will keep looking for opportunities to get them on the record on this issue, but it falls to House Democrats to decide whether to join us in this reform," says Michael Steel, a spokesman for Republican leader John Boehner.

Democrats note that they have already adopted earmark reforms, which include cutting the number of earmarks in half in the last spending cycle and requiring more transparency. "Earmarking got out of control under the Republicans, and President Bush didn't veto a single one. For them to all of a sudden claim earmark reform is a joke," says Brendan Daly, a spokesman for Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

Failing an agreement on a moratorium, both parties are looking for ways to take the high ground on reform. House Democrats say they may introduce a bill this week to provide for an independent ethics board to vet complaints against individual members – a longtime demand of ethics watchdog groups in Washington.

Meanwhile, House Republicans are adopting a series of reform standards on earmarks, which they say will apply to all members of their caucus. These include: No more "monuments to me" – that is, public money to fund projects named after themselves. No more "airdrops," or adding special projects to bills at the last minute. No more laundering taxpayer funds by funding "front" operations that mask the true recipients.

But some GOP conservatives say that their party needs to go further and enforce a unilateral moratorium on member projects in FY 2009. Such a move would distinguish Republicans from Democrats, who won back the House and Senate in 2006 on a pledge to curb corruption. It could also help the party seize the initiative on what could become a signature issue in the 2008 campaign, if Sen. John McCain of Arizona wins the GOP presidential nomination.