updated 9/14/2006 9:42:03 PM ET 2006-09-15T01:42:03

The House changed its rules Thursday to require lawmakers to identify the special projects they slip into legislation, a modest step toward restoring the reputation of Congress in a year of ethical lapses and scandals involving relations with lobbyists.

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“We are making a commitment to changing the culture of this institution,” said House Rules Committee Chairman David Dreier, R-Calif.

The change, in effect only through year’s end, is aimed at curtailing a practice whereby lawmakers anonymously insert “earmarks” — narrowly tailored spending that often helps a specific company or project in their district — into bills.

President Bush said in a statement the bill makes sure “lawmakers and the public are better informed before Congress votes to spend the taxpayers’ money.”

Democrats disparaged the measure, citing the failure of the Republican-led Congress to pass more comprehensive legislation to clean up lawmaker relations with lobbyists.

The rules change “will do little more than to get Republicans through the November elections,” said Rep. Louise Slaughter of New York, top Democrat on the House Rules Committee.

GOP Rep. Jeff Flake of Arizona, a leading critic of special interest spending, said: “I’m under no illusion that this legislation, which deals only with the issue of transparency, will solve the problem of earmarking. But this bill does represent an important first step.”

$29 billion in costs, watchdog says
Citizens Against Government Waste, a taxpayer watchdog group, said there were 9,963 such projects in the spending bills for the 2006 budget year, costing $29 billion.

The 245-171 vote on the rule change came a day after Congress sent to President Bush a bill intended to make government spending more open to public scrutiny.

Under that bill, the government will set up by 2008 a Google-like search engine so people can track hundreds of billions of dollars in grants and contracts that the government awards every year.

But there is currently no prospect for progress on more comprehensive lobbying and ethics overhaul. That had been highlighted as an urgent task at the beginning of the year after several lawmakers were tied to illegal or unsavory actions, particularly with disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

Compromise stalled
The House and Senate last spring passed bills that would have required lobbyists to be more open about their activities; put limits on gifts and meals from lobbyists and travel involving lobbyists; slowed the movement of lawmakers leaving office for lobbying jobs; provided ethics training to staff and members; and ended anonymous earmarks.

The effort at a compromise stalled over a House provision to limit donations to independent political groups known as 527s for the section of tax law under which they are registered. Such groups tend to be more helpful to Democrats; Senate Democrats objected to a lobbying bill that also takes up campaign finance limits.

Democrats and clean government groups were quick to point out that earmark rules were no substitute for a larger ethics overhaul.

“It is tragic that Congress is failing to address in any meaningful way the corruption sweeping Capitol Hill in recent years,” said Laura MacCleery, director of Public Citizen’s Congress Watch division.

GOP's struggle
Even getting the earmarks rule through the House was a struggle for GOP leaders. Republican members of the House Appropriations Committee complained their spending bills unfairly have been targeted, and that the disclosure rules should apply equally to bills from other committees.

House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., and Majority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, told Republican appropriators that they had listened to their concerns and “we believe we have fulfilled our commitment” to equal treatment. House Republicans, they said, made it clear they wanted such. “It is now time to put this reform into our rules.”

To meet objections, the final rules change stipulates that earmarks must be listed not only for bills from committees but also when such projects are added to House-Senate conference reports or included in amendments in the full House.

The measure defines an earmark as “a provision that allocates funds outside of the normal formula-driven or competitive bidding process and targets those funds to a specific entity, state or congressional district.”

Appropriators objected to language that would limit tax earmarks to a tax deduction, credit, exclusion or preference to only one beneficiary. Of the 24 Republicans who voted against the rules change, 22 were members of the Appropriations Committee.

Rep. David Obey, D-Wis., top Democrat on the Appropriations Committee, said that this rule would not cover a huge tax break for two multinational oil companies.

Steve Ellis of Taxpayers for Common Sense said the disclosure requirement leaves out thousands of earmarks directed toward a federal agency such as the Pentagon, the Army Corps of Engineers or national laboratories.

In the Senate, Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., has directed the top Republican and Democrat on the Rules and Administration Committee to develop similar rules changes.

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