Friday, January 12, 2007

Another Democratic fumble

For an example of why earmark reform is going to be messy, consider this: Senate Democrats were forced to delay a vote after nine Democrats joined with Republicans to back a reform bill that is stricter than the Democrat version.

The measure, an amendment to an ethics and lobbying bill, would have adopted a wider definition of "earmarks," specific projects inserted in bills, to include Corps of Engineer water projects, Pentagon weapon systems and items from other federal entities.

The language favored by Reid would require disclosure of only targeted funds directed to nonfederal entities such as city parks, state universities and private contractors.

Good as far as it goes; the Republican bill essentially mirrors language passed by House Democrats. But here are the two most interesting details:

DeMint insisted that the Senate definition would catch about 5 percent of earmarks, saying that in most instances lawmakers insert their pet projects not into the bill itself but into the explanatory report language that accompanies the bill and is not subject to a vote.

Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., said that of 12,852 earmarks found in bills last year, 534 would be subject to Senate disclosure rules....

Democratic Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., also said the DeMint provision was "unworkable" because it was so broad it could be applied to thousands of projects included in federal spending bills.

This illustrates a common Congressional trick: passing laudable bills, but writing key exceptions into the instructions for federal bureaucrats who actually come up with the regulations and formulas for turning the bill into workable law.

And if Durbin's right, it means lawmakers must first agree on a meaningful definition of "earmark."

But legislation that only catches 5 percent of such deals isn't worth the effort. Congress should come up with an effective rule or stop pretending it cares.

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