The “ethics reform bill” now making its way through Congress marks the end, for now at least, of any serious effort to reform the earmark process. This is a sad thing for the Republican Party. Through all of modern history, up until the last two or three years, the Republicans were the party of clean government. It was the Democrats who were associated with bribes, corruption, machine politics, and so on. The idea that the current Republican leaders in Congress–I am thinking especially of Mitch McConnell–are willing to throw away this heritage, and join with the Democrats in suppressing any serious effort at reform–is profoundly depressing.
Today’s Wall Street Journal (subscription only) editorialized on the sham ethics bill that was passed, virtually by acclamation, in the House yesterday:
[Members of Congress] once promised more transparency and limits for the pork-barrel projects known as “earmarks.” These secret spending handouts have proliferated in recent years and in 2005 alone cost taxpayers some $27 billion. Worse, they are a kind of gateway drug used to buy votes for even greater spending. As the last unlamented Republican Congress showed all too well, earmarks are also major opportunities for corruption. ***
Voters loathe this way of doing business, and Democrats did well last year campaigning to end the earmark status quo. The public embarrassment also allowed Republican Senators Jim DeMint and Tom Coburn to shame Majority Leader Harry Reid into agreeing to meaningful reform in January. Yet when the final reform emerged from Congressional backrooms last week, any serious reform had vanished.
Mr. Reid and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi proceeded to bring the bill to the floor in a fast-track procedure that has avoided most public scrutiny and limited the ability of reformers to offer amendments to restore the cuts. What remains is a sham of a reform. A prohibition on allowing Members to trade earmarks for votes? Gone. A restriction on allowing Members and their staff from promoting earmarks from which they or their families would receive a direct financial benefit? All but gone. ***
Our favorite switcheroo: Under the previous Senate reform, the Senate parliamentarian would have determined whether a bill complied with earmark disclosure rules. Under Mr. Reid’s new version, the current Majority Leader, that is Mr. Reid himself, will decide if a bill is in compliance. When was the last time a Majority Party Leader declared one of his own bills out of order?
I understand why the Democrats, now in the majority, want to preserve their opportunities for paying off special interests. That’s largely why they want to be in the majority in the first place. But why on earth should Republicans join with them?
Robert Novak has more:
The persistence of this consensus is therefore puzzling, especially when Republicans have few other issues working in their favor, thanks to the Iraq War. To date, Republican leaders have been very reluctant to upset the bipartisan consensus on earmarking. Between the parties and across regions of the country, lawmakers remain, by and large, steadfastly supportive of every congressman’s right to perform “private charity” with other people’s money. Senate leadership of both parties has been indifferent and even hostile toward Senators Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) and Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) for pursuing this issue with vigor.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has sought at every turn to weaken reforms that have already passed the Senate almost unanimously. He has succeeded. The bill the Senate will see next is the one that passed the House yesterday with only eight votes in opposition. It significantly weakens Senate rules on earmark transparency, earmarks benefiting family members, and threats made against members that they will lose their earmarks if they do not vote for bills.
Because their leadership has not cared for this struggle from the start, Senate Republicans will likely be forced to vote for this weak bill simply because they will otherwise look like they are obstructing reform.
Talleyrand’s words occur to me: the Republicans’ acquiescence in Democratic corruption is criminal; worse, it’s stupid.
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