Because of the regrettable actions of a few, Congress is now considering significant reforms that would curb the influence of lobbyists and discourage the use of wasteful earmarks.
Among the members of Congress with more notable lapses in fiscal responsibility that triggered the current quest for reform were Rep. Don Young (R.-Alaska), who showed a penchant for pork-barrel excess in the highway bill, and former Rep. Randy Cunningham (R.-Calif.), who has been convicted for accepting bribes in return for earmarks. Taken together, their actions helped to precipitate a national backlash against the growing influence of lobbyists in the federal budget.
This backlash has encouraged several Members of Congress to introduce legislation designed to discourage some of these practices. Of the 30 or so pieces of such legislation introduced by mid March 2006, most would make only cosmetic changes to the earmarking process and would leave the lobbying community untouched.
Two notable exceptions are pieces of legislation introduced by Sen. John McCain (R.-Ariz.) that would require extensive reporting and transparency of the entire lobbying/earmark process and provide a remedy against some of the more wasteful earmarks included in appropriations bills. Enactment of these two bills, the Lobbying Transparency and Accounting Act of 2005 (S. 2128) and the Pork Barrel Reduction Act (S. 2265), would deter some of the more outrageous lobbying and legislative practices related to earmarks. Among their many provisions, the bills would:
- Require lobbying firms, lobbyists, and their political action committees to disclose their campaign contributions to federal candidates and office holders;
- Mandate disclosure of fundraisers hosted, co-hosted, or otherwise sponsored by these entities and disclosure of contributions for other events involving legislative and executive branch officials;
- Allow senators to oppose earmarks by raising a point of order, which if sustained would delete the earmark from the bill; and
- Require recipients of earmarked funding to disclose the amount of money that they spent on registered lobbyists to obtain the earmark and to identify the lobbyists.
What Congress Should Do
While these bills are by far the best of the many bills introduced to date and could improve the integrity of the legislative process, they could be made tougher by including several additional provisions:
- Disclosure of family relationships. With so many close family (and family-like) connections among Members of Congress, staff, and the registered lobbyists, the Pork Barrel Reduction Act should also require registered lobbyists to disclose blood and marital relationships (including in-laws) with Members of Congress, senior congressional staff, and senior executive branch officials.
- Disclosure of campaign contributions. The Lobbying Transparency and Accounting Act should also require disclosure of any campaign contributions from the client or the client’s staff to a Member of Congress and disclosure of any contributions paid by a client or lobbyist to a Member’s charitable affiliate. Combined with the other provisions in S. 2128, these changes would make it somewhat easier to connect earmarks to campaign contributions.
- A reasonably precise definition of "earmark." Any successful effort to limit Members’ propensity to earmark spending and other federal privileges requires a reasonably precise definition of what is and what is not an earmark. A good definition would also help to prevent the congressional abuses that transfer valuable public resources to other interests for reasons based solely on influence and privilege. Of the bills introduced so far, S. 2349, sponsored by Senator Trent Lott (R–Miss.), offers the most detailed definition of an earmark. Section 3 defines it as covering "budget authority, contract authority, loan authority, and other expenditures, and tax expenditures or other revenue items."
- Revised House and Senate ethics codes. As currently written, existing congressional guidelines are too lax, permitting many types of gifts from lobbyists including meals, travel and entertainment and excluding many congressional employees from key prohibitions. The guidelines possess enough loopholes to render many of the restrictions irrelevant. The House and Senate should revise their ethics codes to conform with the Standards and Ethical Conduct for Executive Branch Employees. There is no compelling reason why employees of one branch of government should be exempt from the strict ethical standards that govern the other two branches. By eliminating these unnecessary privileges, Congress and its staff will be taking an important step in freeing themselves from the taint and suspicion that now cloud the reputation of this distinguished body.
These bills would have their biggest impact in deterring some of the corrupt practices that appear to be associated with a number of earmarks. By requiring extensive reporting and transparency and by making the link between earmarks and campaign contributions more obvious, these bills would enhance the integrity of the legislative process. While these provisions are not likely to slow down the growth of earmarks, they should make the process more honest.