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House opens earmarks to scrutiny by public

Published January 6, 2007


WASHINGTON - The House passed a sweeping package of ethics and budget reforms Friday that would force lawmakers to disclose their pet projects and restrain them from creating programs unless they raise taxes or cut spending elsewhere.

Flexing their legislative muscle during their second day in control of Congress, Democratic leaders said the changes would ensure openness and accountability, which they said would be a welcome change after a dozen years of Republican rule.

The rule changes, which are being matched by a bipartisan bill next week in the Senate, signal a sharp change on ethics since the November election. Before the election, the Republican-controlled Congress had little enthusiasm for the reforms. The House and Senate each passed their own bills, but they were never reconciled.

Now, lawmakers from both parties say they got a resounding message from voters that the legislative branch needs to be more open and ethical.

"There was a mandate for change, to restore civility, decorum and ethical behavior for Congress," said Rep. Doris Matsui, D-Calif.

Indeed, House Republicans overwhelmingly backed the Democratic reforms this week, except the one that includes the new budget rule, which is known as "pay-as-you-go" or PAYGO.

Republican members, laying an early marker for what is likely to be a 2008 campaign issue, said the Democratic approach would force Congress to raise taxes.

Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., called it "timid, weak, watered-down PAYGO" because it does not put enough emphasis on spending cuts.

"This is putting the American taxpayer on a collision course with higher taxes," Ryan said during the spirited but civil floor debate.

Ryan, like many other Republicans, emphasized that he supported the other pieces of the Democratic package, especially the one requiring disclosure of pet projects, which on Capitol Hill are known as earmarks.

"I think the earmark reforms are very good. They are very commendable. They work," Ryan said.

The earmark reform approved Friday, which requires the disclosure of individual projects and the lawmakers requesting them, is broader than previous efforts because it applies not just to appropriations bills, but also to tax breaks and other types of bills.

All House Democrats supported the section of the ethics package that included earmark reform and PAYGO, but only a fourth of Republicans did.

Of the Tampa Bay area Republicans, Reps. C.W. Bill Young of Indian Shores, Gus Bilirakis of Tarpon Springs and Ginny Brown-Waite of Brooksville supported it, while Rep. Adam Putnam of Bartow, a member of the GOP leadership, voted against it.

The House measure did not need Senate approval or President Bush's signature because it simply changed House rules.

The Senate bill, which has been designated S1 to signify it is the top priority for both parties, would be even more sweeping, especially on lobbyists. It would require more disclosure reports from lobbyists and tougher penalties for violations, and it would force lobbying firms to reveal when they are using "AstroTurf" campaigns, which use telephone calls and letter writing to create the impression of broad public support.

The Senate bill is modeled after one that passed last year but never became law because it wasn't reconciled with the House.

Despite the speedy progress on ethics in the first two days of the 110th Congress, there was a common refrain among lawmakers and groups that have championed ethics reform: The devil will be in the details.

Although the new rules are sweeping, their effectiveness will depend on how much Congress is willing to police itself. Because the ethics and budget reforms passed so far are simply part of the House's internal rules, they can be waived or ignored.

"There is not one single item in this package that guarantees enforcement," said David Dreier, R-Calif., the senior Republican on the Rules Committee.

But Democrats say they are serious about changing the culture of Congress and will explore the possibility of an independent panel to police House members.

"These reforms," said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, "are just our first steps."

Times Washington bureau chief Bill Adair can be reached at or 202 463-0575.

[Last modified January 6, 2007, 00:30:54]

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