Thursday, September 14, 2006

New Web site will tell Americans which companies win government contracts and grants under an ethics bill passed by the scandal-rocked House of Rep's

Scandal-rocked House passes ethics bill
By Richard Cowan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A new Web site will tell Americans which companies win government contracts and grants under an ethics bill passed by the scandal-rocked House of Representatives on Wednesday ahead of November elections.

The legislation, approved on a voice vote, would create a new Internet site by 2008 giving the public quick access to information on the dispersal of billions of dollars in grants and contracts.

Last week, the Senate approved similar legislation.

Craig Holman of the consumer group Congress Watch called the measure "a great disclosure bill" that particularly will help disseminate information on the huge number of defense contracts that are now difficult and time-consuming to track.

Republicans have been linked with a series of scandals involving contracting abuses and other special-interest favors. Democrats have highlighted their opponents' ethics' problems as they try to capture control of the House and Senate in November elections.

The Republican-led Congress has not enacted broad ethics-reform legislation it promised in reaction to the Jack Abramoff and Randy "Duke" Cunningham scandals and instead is pushing narrower reforms.

Cunningham, a California Republican, resigned from the House last year after pleading guilty to accepting $2.4 million in bribes in exchange for help in securing Defense Department contracts.

Abramoff had been a high-powered Washington lobbyist with close ties to Republican leaders. His lobbying operation collapsed during a federal probe that led to his guilty plea in January on fraud charges.

Besides the contracts data base, House Republican leaders also were hoping to pass a second ethics bill this week.

That measure would change House rules so that federal funds for local projects, known as "earmarks" or "pork," would have to be specifically listed in legislation with a disclosure of their sponsors.

Many Republicans and Democrats have avidly pursued such funds for their hometowns. Nonetheless, lawmakers blamed each other for the secretive practice, which critics say leads to wasteful spending.

"The current earmark process is a relic of the old Democrat Congress," said House Majority Leader John Boehner, an Ohio Republican who has declined to seek earmarked funds for his district.

But Republicans have controlled the House for the past 11 years, during which time the use of earmarks exploded.

Democrats said they would seek tougher reforms to prevent lawmakers' relatives from benefiting from earmarks and discourage earmarks from being inserted last-minute into House-Senate compromise bills.

The Senate has not addressed the earmark controversy.

Congress Watch's Holman called the rule change a "simple, fairly minor disclosure requirement" that lacks a mechanism for removing wasteful spending from bills. He also said it "marked the death" of more meaningful ethics reform in Congress this year.