August 1, 2007

They're All Ears... Again

Hatched by Dafydd

With great fanfare, the House nearly unanimously passed the Democrats' "ethics" bill... and just as Big Lizards predicted, there is virtually nothing in it to forbid or even slow down the enacting of congressional "earmarks":

The bill, which was drafted by Democratic leaders, has been a signature issue for Democrats since winning control of Congress last November. The measure would end gifts to lawmakers, including meals and tickets, by lobbyists and their clients. The bill is also intended to force members of both houses to make public the names of lobbyists who raise $15,000 or more for them in any six-month period with practice known as "bundling," the combination donations from many people.

House members approved the new legislation 411 to 8, even though some privately grumbled that it would make fund-raising more difficult.

Previous posts in our series about Congress, the Democrats, and earmarks:

  1. The Missing Earpiece
  2. Has Nancy Pelosi Changed Her Mind About Ears?
  3. The Democrats Are All Ears
  4. Earmarks? No No... Phonemarks!

In The Democrats Are All Ears, published more than eight months ago, here is what we said:

In today's New York Times, we've started to find out the contours of just what the Democrats meant when they said they would clean up the "Republican culture of corruption." Interestingly, it doesn't appear to include earmarks -- which are the biggest problem:

Their initial proposals, laid out earlier this year, would prohibit members from accepting meals, gifts or travel from lobbyists, require lobbyists to disclose all contacts with lawmakers and bar former lawmakers-turned-lobbyists from entering the floor of the chambers or Congressional gymnasiums. [That's harsh... congressmen turned lobbyists will no longer be able to use the Stair Stepper or the House basketball court. That's got to hurt.]

None of the measures would overhaul campaign financing or create an independent ethics watchdog to enforce the rules. Nor would they significantly restrict earmarks, the pet projects lawmakers can anonymously in sert into spending bills, which have figured in several recent corruption scandals and attracted criticism from members in both parties. The proposals would require disclosure of the sponsors of some earmarks, but not all.

I have the strangest sense of déjà vu; where did I hear this before? Oh yes, here we go... in both of the two previous Big Lizards posts linked above, I noted that "Democrats in the House voted 147 to 45 against the Republican rules change that identified all earmarks and their congressional sponsors." That's more than 3-1 against identifying the sponsors of earmarks.

Two-thirds of a year hath passed, but the Democrats are no more interested in curtailing earmarks than they ever were; the closest the new legislation -- now passed by the full House -- comes to the subject is to require that earmarks be disclosed by the congressional sponsors 48 hours before the House or Senate votes.

But there is not a word in here about the primary opportunity to insert earmarks, the point at which most of them get added: They usually appear in the joint conference, where congressmen reconcile differences between the House and Senate versions of the same bill.

At that time, in what is in essence a big committee (with members of both bodies present), I don't believe there is any official record kept of who added what, or even what is in there. Nor can there be any amendments after the joint conference, nothing either added or deleted; the only options are to pass the legislation as is or not to pass it at all.

Since the Times does not explicitly say that the current legislation would allow any exceptions to that rule, allowing earmarks inserted during the joint conference to be removed -- or even mentioned on the floor of either chamber -- then I must assume that it does not, in fact, prevent that particular form of corrupt skullduggery.

Sidebar: Evidently, the word "skullduggery" appears to come from the Scottish dialect "sculduddery," meaning obscenity or fornication. Stick that in your Congressional Record and smoke it.

So the mountain, having labored longly and loudly, with a hundred declamations of self-righteous sanctimony, has in the end given birth to a mouse of an ethics bill. As Shakespeare said, it's "sound and fury signifying nothing." The bill is utterly useless, serving only to make earmarks even more obscure and difficult to eradicate than before.

And let us not forget that one of the first acts of the incoming Democratic majority in the House was to find a brand, new way of slipping earmarks into pending spending -- this time by turning them into "phonemarks." In Earmarks? No No... Phonemarks!, we caught them in the act:

The Democrats have not only jettisoned any idea of "cleaning up" Washington and running the most ethical Congress in history... they have become positively ingenious in finding new ways to hide their culture of corruption from public view:

When the new Democratic majority in the House of Representatives passed one of its first spending bills, funding the Energy Department for the rest of 2007, it proudly boasted that the legislation contained no money earmarked for lawmakers' pet projects and stressed that any prior congressional requests for such spending "shall have no legal effect."

Within days, however, lawmakers including Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) began directly contacting the Energy Department. They sought to secure money for their favorite causes outside of the congressional appropriations process -- a practice that lobbyists and appropriations insiders call "phonemarking...."

That is, individual members of Congress would call appropriators at the Department of Energy and say, in their best Vito Corleone voice, "We know there's nothing in the bill requiring it, but we think it would be better for everyone, not to mention safer, if you hired this particular New Jersey contractor to develop a new nuclear reactor, rather than any of the other competitors."

And of course, it was House Appropriations Committee Chairman David R. Obey (D-WI, 90%) who came up with the brilliant idea of banning earmarks from spending legislation... but then re-inserting them into the bill when it goes to the join conference.

So now they've gone and done exactly what they said they would: Remove all their own earmarks even from the flickering light of yesterday's Congress and sneak them in under the total blackness of the secret joint conference... or even ex post facto by making extortionary calls to federal agencies, warning that it might not be healthy to forget to funnel a few billion dollars off to favored Democratic contractors.

Thank goodness we got rid of that Republican culture of corruption!

And will the elite media now leap to their collective feat in a standing ovulation, cheering this magnificent feat? We're all ears.

Hatched by Dafydd on this day, August 1, 2007, at the time of 3:30 AM

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The following hissed in response by: Terrye

They can get away with this because most people do not know or care what an earmark is.

I have been working for a home health care agency for years. We deal with all kinds of people, rich..poor..young...old...with all kinds of payer sources. However, our most common payer source is the federal or state government. I have come to the conclusion that most people only think the government is wasting money when it is spending it on that other guy.

Not them, they earned it. So it is with earmarks, if it helps build a bridge or a road or a senior center or a youth counseling center that they want or need then it is a fine and dandy thing. And the Congress knows this.

The above hissed in response by: Terrye [TypeKey Profile Page] at August 1, 2007 3:58 AM

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