Monday, November 13, 2006

Democrats: Identify pork sponsors

Democrats: Identify pork sponsors
By Peter Eisler and Kathy Kiely, USA TODAY

WASHINGTON — Democrats aim to open the next Congress in January with a new rule that identifies lawmakers who use legislative "earmarks" to help special interests — a change Republicans promised but didn't implement.

House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi said her first agenda item after being elected House speaker will be a vote to require sponsors of earmarks to be identified. Currently, lawmakers can remain anonymous in sponsoring an earmark, which is language in a bill that directs funds or tax benefits to a business, project or institution.

"There has to be transparency," the California congresswoman told USA TODAY last week. "I'd just as soon do away with all (earmarks), but that probably isn't realistic."

Pelosi said some earmarks "are worthy," and they can be a legitimate way for Congress to force fiscal priorities on the White House.

House Republican leaders adopted a disclosure rule in September, but no earmark sponsors have been identified under the rule because it effectively exempted bills that dictate spending for 2007.

Congress begins a lame-duck session today to consider unfinished 2007 appropriations bills. Those bills could give members another chance to insert anonymous earmarks. Regardless, the Republican rule expires at year's end, so Democrats would have to pass their own disclosure requirement.

Earmarking has drawn complaints from groups such as the National Taxpayers Union that say anonymity encourages wasteful spending. Conservative groups and some GOP lawmakers, such as Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., have said Republicans' failure to bring accountability to the process helped fuel the party's losses last week.

David Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union, cited earmark disclosure as one of several "needed reforms" that Republicans should back in the new Congress. "We hope that the party in which most of us have invested our trust will learn the right lessons" from the elections, he said.

Last month, a USA TODAY investigation found that many special interests got earmarks after hiring lobbyists who were relatives of lawmakers or staffers affiliated with the House and Senate appropriations committees.

According to the Congressional Research Service, the number of earmarks in appropriations bills has tripled in the past decade to about 16,000. One famous example was an earmark that set aside millions for a "bridge to nowhere" — a span over a remote Alaskan waterway to a sparsely populated island.

"You can't have bridges to nowhere for America's children to pay for," Pelosi said. "Or if you do, you have to know whose it is."

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