WASHINGTON - The Senate voted yesterday to shine more light on thousands of expensive pet projects buried in legislation every year after the new Democratic majority bowed to a successful push by Republicans to make new disclosure rules even tougher than originally planned.
The measure, passed 98-0, would require senators to disclose the water projects, hiking trails, defense contracts, or tax breaks for specific industries they insert into legislation. The unanimity came five days after Democrats were thwarted by a GOP-led rebellion in advancing their own version of "earmark" reform.
Bringing transparency to earmarks is a major objective of the ethics and lobbying overhaul that the Senate has been debating since the 110th Congress convened.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.), who last week led opposition to the Republican approach, said the final product "combined the best ideas from both sides of the aisle." Sen. Jim DeMint (R., S.C.), author of the amendment to the ethics bill, said the two sides' ability to come together on the issue was "a good signal for the new Congress."
DeMint proposed last Thursday that the Senate adapt for its bill the more expansive definition of an earmark that the House had previously approved. Under that definition, an earmark subject to public disclosure would include special projects tucked into federal agency budgets, such as a Pentagon contract, as well as nonfederal projects such as state parks and municipal museums. The definition in the original Senate bill would have applied only to nonfederal projects.
Sen. Tom Coburn (R., Okla.), DeMint's ally on the issue, said the Democratic approach would have caught less than 5 percent of the almost 13,000 earmarks that made it into legislation last year.
Democrats countered that making public disclosures of every project designated by federal agencies was unworkable. But after Democratic leaders failed in an effort to kill the DeMint provision, Reid on Friday acknowledged moving too quickly on the issue and pledged to work with DeMint to strengthen his amendment.
The Senate first voted 98-0 to accept changes to the amendment offered by Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin (D., Ill.) that would make it more difficult for legislators to slip in tax breaks that help a single company or a limited number of people.
Lawmakers would also be required to post their earmarks online 48 hours before a vote.
The Senate yesterday also approved, by voice vote, an amendment to bar lawmakers from including earmarks in the classified parts of a bill or a conference report without language in unclassified terms describing the project, the funding levels, and the sponsor.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D., Calif.), cosponsor of that amendment, said that former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R., Calif.), now in prison for accepting bribes from defense contractors, used classified reports over a five-year period to gain $70 million to $80 million in earmarks that helped his friends.
The Senate also voted 95-2 to advance debate on a Reid amendment that would broaden the ban on lobbyists offering gifts and travel, to include companies that hire lobbyists. The amendment also would end the practice of senators' paying the equivalent of first-class tickets when they catch rides on corporate jets - instead, they would have to pay more expensive charter rates.