Politics & Policy

“A Landmark Betrayal”

The majority abandons real ethics reform.

As Congress winds down for the summer, Democrats in the House and Senate raced to push through one of their top priorities for this term: lobbying and ethics form.

Swept to power in part because of widespread disgust over Republican scandals, Democrats made ethics reform a top priority, introducing it as the very first bill in this year’s session.

The Senate passed resolution S. 1 during its first few weeks, in late January. During that debate, Sen. Jim DeMint (R, S.C.) fought to attach amendments strengthening rules governing earmarks, which are provisions in legislation directing the government to spend money on particular projects. Lawmakers often use earmarks to secure funding for projects in their home district or state.

The DeMint Amendments did several things: it forbade trading earmarks with other members of Congress for votes, strengthened the ability to challenge earmarks added during conference of a bill, and required more disclosure as to whom an earmark financially benefits.

In the House, though, the bill was substantially rewritten — at the behest of Democratic Majority leader Harry Reid, Republicans insist — to water down the earmarks provisions that DeMint added. The House passed this bill on Tuesday, 411-8, and sent the new version of S. 1, sans earmark reform, back to the Senate.

The Senate passed that legislation early this afternoon, by a vote of 80 to 17, with seventeen Republicans in the minority.

Of chief concern to the Senate Republicans was the change in the new bill that changes the authority to decide whether or not an earmark is considered out of order from the Senate parliamentarian to the Majority Leader (Reid), or the chairman of the Appropriations Committee (Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia). Even if senators were to challenge an earmark Byrd or Reid had certified, the threshold needed to keep the earmark in place is considerably lower in the new version of the bill.

DeMint openly expressed his frustration at a press conference this morning on Capitol Hill, flanked by Tom Coburn (Okla.), John McCain (Ariz.), John Cornyn (Tex.), Lindsey Graham (S.C.), and John Ensign (Nev.).

“This is an unethical ethics bill,” DeMint said. “It pretends to do something that it does not,” he said, arguing that the earmark provisions in the bill considered by the Senate this morning were superficial at best.

The other senators lamented what they see as a lack of transparency in the earmark process under the new legislation.

The bill, said Sen. Coburn, is “not a landmark accomplishment, but a landmark betrayal.”

Sen. John McCain expressed his disappointment openly. “This was a great opportunity to fix…a process that has lurched out of control,” McCain said. Chances for true reform only occur every five to ten years, McCain said, “We’re missing this chance.”

Senators Cornyn and Ensign also pledged their opposition to the cloture vote, excoriating what they see as inadequate transparency for the earmark process. Senator Graham worried about breaching the trust of the voters.

Eleven other Republican senators joined their colleagues from the press conference in voting against the ethics reform bill.

Because the bill made a change to Senate rules, it required a supermajority of 66 votes. Due to the continued absence of Sen. Tim Johnson (D, S.D.), 24 votes would have prevented passage of the bill, meaning Republicans fell seven votes short of blocking the measure.

Passing the bill, DeMint said, “is worse than doing nothing, because it only sustains the status quo.”

Opposition to the ethics bill has nothing to do with Republicans trying to prevent Democrats the bill they have touted since day one, said Tom Coburn at a press conference yesterday. “I don’t thing there’s a problem with lobbyists in Washington,” he said, “There’s a problem with the members of Congress.”

Reid’s office, for its part, blasted DeMint and company for their work against the bill. “The one he’s [DeMint] asking for, an open process, is exactly what he’s prevented the Senate from doing,” said Jim Manley, a spokesman for Reid. “We’ve got landmark reforms that will enact the most sweeping legislation the Senate has ever had.”

Reid’s office additionally blames DeMint for forcing this process, by preventing the legislation from going to conference. This, DeMint’s office contends, was because he could not secure an assurance from Reid that the earmark provisions would not be cut.

Despite the protests by Coburn and DeMint, many Senate Republicans voted for the legislation. Many worried about the weakened earmark portions of the bill, DeMint said at this morning’s press conference, but they feared even more the prospect of being pegged by Democrats as being against ethics and lobbying reform.

 – Michael O’Brien, a Collegiate Network intern at National Review, is editor of the Michigan Review.

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