By EDWARD EPSTEIN
San Francisco Chronicle
February 06, 2006
Good-government advocates say earmarks, which grew last year to include nearly 15,000 projects tucked into bills without hearings or disclosure to other members, sap public confidence in Congress and is rife with the potential for abuse.
Criticism of the practice also reached a crescendo in recent months, with disclosure of the $328 million "bridge to nowhere" in Alaska and the millions of dollars of earmarks inserted into bills for military contractors who bribed Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham of San Diego County. Cunningham resigned after pleading guilty.
Feinstein, who introduced the proposed changes to Senate rules Thursday along with Rules Committee Chairman Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., said their proposal would "add the light of day to a process which usually takes place in the dead of night."
The Lott-Feinstein package stops well short of abolishing earmarks, which both said should remain in some form.
"This is a modest measure that will make a difference," said Feinstein, the San Francisco Democrat, whose fellow Californian, Sen. Barbara Boxer, quickly signed on as a co-sponsor.
The earmarks are generally inserted into conference committee spending bills, which are negotiated between House and Senate panels after both houses have passed differing versions of legislation. The Lott-Feinstein proposal would require that final conference bills be made available to the Senate and posted on the Internet at least 24 hours before members are asked to vote, so members and the public can get a chance to see what's in the voluminous bills.
Each earmark would require a listing of its sponsor and some specifics about the purpose for the spending.
Once on the floor, a senator would have a chance to challenge any provision added by the conference committee that wasn't in the original House or Senate bills. To overturn that objection, a Senate sponsor of an earmark would need 60 votes.
Currently, changing any part of a conference report means overturning the entire legislation. Under the proposal, the Senate bill would be sent back to the House, minus the stricken items.
Lott said he opposes eliminating earmarks entirely. "I don't think there's anything wrong with earmarks. I represent one of the poorest states in the nation. We're desperate" for federal money, said the former Senate majority leader.
He said that for years he had sought money to help Chula, Miss., a poor, rural town prone to flooding, solve the problem. With federal doors closed to him, he inserted an earmark into legislation to help the town.
Feinstein said she did the same thing last year to help Laguna Beach, Calif., deal with landslide damage until a local sales tax increase to fix the problem could kick in.
Taxpayers for Common Sense, a group that would like to see the number of earmarks slashed, said the proposal is a good start.
"It symbolizes growing momentum for a layer of transparency on earmarks that we need to make a determination if these are good expenditures," said the group's Keith Ashdown. "In the best of worlds, this might lead to a reduction in the rate of growth" for earmarks.
How much has the situation changed? In 1987 President Ronald Reagan vetoed a highway bill because it contained 150 earmarks. Last year's $284 billion bill, signed by President Bush, contained 6,371 earmarks, for a total of $24 billion.
The chances for the Lott-Feinstein bill were perhaps best exemplified by the reception that earmark reform got Tuesday night when Bush mentioned it in his State of the Union proposal. Only a few members, including Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., earmarking's most outspoken opponent, applauded.
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