Harry Reid's Embarrassing Reform Proposal

A beaming Harry Reid last week basked in the adoration of the Democratic Party’s leading Senate reformers and its nine freshman senators. They extravagantly praised the new majority leader as the exemplar of ethical reform. But within 48 hours, Reid was opposing full transparency of earmarks. This week, Republican reformers will target Reid with an amendment to the Senate ethics package.

Sponsored by Republican Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, the proposal is called the "Reid amendment" because he inadvertently inspired it. Coburn would tighten loose anti-earmark restrictions in the ethics bill by prohibiting senators from requesting earmarks that financially benefit a senator, an immediate family member of a senator or a family member of a senator’s staffer.

The proposal follows the revelation that Reid’s four sons and his daughter’s husband all have been lawyers or lobbyists for special interests. While Reid has declared they are barred from lobbying for their clients in his office, there is little doubt they have taken advantage of their close proximity to a powerful senator.

An example is provided by earmarks that have sent millions of federal dollars to the University of Nevada at Reno. Reid’s son-in-law, lawyer Steven Barringer, was a paid lobbyist for the university. In general, Republican reformers see Reid illustrating the nexus between legislators and special interests, in his case mainly real estate, gambling and mining.

Reid is far from the only prominent member of Congress who would be violating Coburn’s amendment if it passed. Republican Rep. Bill Young of Florida, a senior member and former chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, secured a $1 million earmark for development of military body armor — a project lobbied for by his daughter-in-law. Democratic Rep. Jim Clyburn of South Carolina, the new House majority whip, has been reported by USA Today as pushing through a $2.5 million airport earmark lobbied for by his first cousin.

Sen. Ted Stevens, senior Republican member of the Senate, has funneled $29 million in earmarks to the Alaska Fisheries Marketing Board, then headed by his son, State Sen. Ben Stevens. Sen. Mitch McConnell, the new minority leader, won a $1.5 million earmark for an underground financial storage depot in his home state of Kentucky, lobbied for by the wife of the senator’s chief of staff.

The "Reid amendment" is only part of a plan by Coburn and his fellow first-term Republican senator, Jim DeMint of South Carolina, to make sure that earmark reform is included in new ethical standards. Democratic efforts, particularly in the Senate, have concentrated on conduct of lobbyists and not members of Congress. Although the House version passed last week is stronger, the final compromise coming out of a Senate-House conference may barely touch the surface of earmarks.

The Senate version mandates transparency only for the few projects listed in legislation and not the accompanying reports. That would ignore up to 98 percent of the 12,852 earmarks in the last Congress. Reid launched his career as majority leader last Thursday with a furious fight to preserve this condition.

Reid moved to table (that is, kill) DeMint’s amendment, which would substitute in the Senate ethics package the language covering all earmarks as contained in Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s House bill. Reid was surprised to fail, 46 to 51, with nine Democrats abandoning their majority leader. The Senate routine is that when a tabling motion fails, the bill is passed by a voice vote. But an obviously distressed Reid took the floor to hold open the vote indefinitely on DeMint’s bill, contending that the Democratic-controlled House had acted in haste.

The two leading Senate Democratic reformers, Russell Feingold of Wisconsin and Barack Obama of Illinois, who two days earlier lavished praise on Reid’s ethical leadership, voted against him on the tabling motion. However, of the nine freshman Democrats who also had honored Reid, only two — Jim Webb of Virginia and Jon Tester of Montana — voted for transparency. The other seven toed Reid’s party line. (Seven Republicans voted with Reid, but they included Minority Whip Trent Lott.)

Minority Whip Dick Durbin saved Reid further embarrassment Friday by proposing some minor technical changes in the DeMint amendment and claiming victory. A tougher test for Democrats will come this week on efforts to remove family, Reid’s and everybody else’s, from the earmark game.