As a second member of the 109th Congress agreed to plead guilty on corruption charges last week, the GOP-controlled House voted to change its rules on earmarks.
It's a modest reform – far short of the travel and gift bans that Republican leaders proposed last spring as a response to the corruption scandals roiling Congress. But with broader lobby reform stalled in negotiations with the Senate, it's the best GOP leaders said they could do before members returned home for elections this November.
"The idea is to provide transparency and accountability to what we do," said House majority leader John Boehner, before Thursday's 245-to-171 vote. "If we need to, we can make adjustments before the next Congress."
The rule change requires the disclosure of earmarks – funds targeted to members' pet projects – and their sponsors. But effectively, it will mainly apply to spending bills. Thus, it will affect only one of the appropriations bills for the coming fiscal year – the sprawling Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education bill – because the House has already passed the other 10 spending bills.
Also, there are many loopholes in the new rule. For example: The $223 million for Alaska's proposed "bridge to nowhere," arguably the most famous earmark, might escape scrutiny because it was added to an authorization bill, not a spending bill.
In a move that particularly rankled reformers, the powerful House Ways and Means Committee changed the definition of a tax earmark from one affecting fewer than 100 entities to one affecting only one. So an earmark targeted at two companies, instead of one, wouldn't have to be disclosed. The move excludes many of the most controversial targeted tax breaks from the new rule.
Finally, the earmark-reform rule changes expire at the end of the 109th Congress this year, along with other House rules. Still, supporters say they expect that these rules will be renewed: Not to do so would require a risky vote opposing openness and accountability in government.
"What generally happens at the beginning of a new Congress is that the rules governing the previous Congress are adopted," says Steve Ellis, vice president of programs for Taxpayers for Common Sense, a public-interest group in Washington that supports accountability in government.
The new House rule "doesn't make it easier to strip wasteful earmarks [and] it won't reduce the number of earmarks, but it is more than what we have today," he adds. "Next year, we will be calling on Congress to enact a 'Leave No Earmark Behind' bill that provides taxpayers complete transparency."
Democrats opposing the rule change say it doesn't go far enough to curb the actions of members such as Rep. Bob Ney, who agreed last week to plead guilty to corruption charges. The Ohio Republican acknowledged performing official acts for lobbyists in exchange for campaign contributions, expensive travel, gifts, and meals. Last November, Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R) of California pleaded guilty to accepting some $2.4 million in bribes from defense contractors in exchange for earmarks in defense bills and other favors.
"It shows that Republicans cannot really run the Congress, because they couldn't pass more comprehensive lobby reform," says Rep. Louise Slaughter of New York, the ranking Democrat on the House Rules Committee, who led the floor fight to oppose the earmark reform bill.
"The sum and substance of what we have been able to do is ... require disclosure of some earmarks while concealing others, and that sounds a lot like the status quo," says Rep. Adam Schiff (D) of California.
Senate GOP leaders say they will pass their own rule changes providing more transparency for earmarking before the end of the 109th Congress.