Because of the regrettable actions of a few, Congress is now considering significant reforms that would curb the influence of lobbyists and discourage the use of wasteful earmarks. Among the Members of Congress with more notable lapses in fiscal responsibility that triggered the current quest for reform were Representative Don Young (R-AK), who showed a penchant for pork-barrel excess in the highway bill, and former Representative Randy Cunningham (R- CA), who has been convicted for accepting bribes in return for earmarks. Taken together, their actions helped to precipitate a national backlash against the growing influence of lobbyists on the federal budget.
This backlash has encouraged several Members of Congress to introduce legislation designed to discourage some of these practices. Of the 51 pieces of such legislation introduced by early April 2006, most would make only cosmetic changes in the earmarking process and would leave the lobbying community untouched.
Two notable exceptions are pieces of legislation introduced by Senator John McCain (R-AZ) that would require extensive reporting and transparency of the entire lobbying/earmark process and provide a remedy against some of the more wasteful earmarks included in appropriations bills. Enactment of these two bills, the Lobbying Transparency and Accounting Act of 2005 (S. 2128) and the Pork-Barrel Reduction Act (S. 2265), would deter some of the more outrageous lobbying and legislative practices related to earmarks.
Among their many provisions, these two bills would:
• Require lobbying firms, lobbyists, and their political action committees to disclose their campaign contributions to federal candidates and officeholders;
• Mandate both the disclosure of fundraisers hosted, co-hosted, or otherwise sponsored by these entities and the disclosure of contributions for other events involving legislative and executive branch officials;
• Allow Senators to oppose earmarks by raising a point of order, which, if sustained, would delete the earmark from the bill; and
• Require recipients of earmarked funding both to disclose the amount of money that they spent on registered lobbyists to obtain the earmark and to identify the lobbyists.
What Congress Should Do. While these bills are by far the best of the many bills introduced to date and could improve the integrity of the legislative process, they could be made tougher by including several additional provisions:
• Disclosure of family relationships. With so many close family (and family-like) connections between registered lobbyists and Members of Congress and their staffs, the Pork- Barrel Reduction Act should also require registered lobbyists to disclose blood and marital relationships (including in-laws) with Members of Congress, senior congressional staff, and senior executive branch officials.
• Disclosure of campaign contributions. The Lobbying Transparency and Accounting Act should also require both the disclosure of any campaign contributions from the client or the client's staff to a Member of Congress and the disclosure of any contributions paid by a client or lobbyist to a Member's charitable affiliate. Combined with the other provisions in S. 2128, these changes would make it somewhat easier to connect earmarks to campaign contributions.
• A reasonably precise definition of an earmark. Any successful effort to limit Members' propensity to earmark spending and other federal privileges requires a reasonably precise definition of what is and what is not an earmark. A good definition would also help to prevent the congressional abuses that transfer valuable public resources to other interests for reasons based solely on influence and privilege. Of the bills introduced so far, the Transparency and Accountability Act of 2006 (S. 2349), sponsored by Senator Trent Lott (R- MS), offers the most detailed definition of an earmark. Section 3 defines it as covering "budget authority, contract authority, loan authority, and other expenditures, and tax expenditures or other revenue items."
Conclusion. These bills would have their biggest impact in deterring some of the corrupt and wasteful practices that appear to be associated with a number of earmarks. By requiring extensive reporting and transparency and by making the link between earmarks and campaign contributions more obvious, they would enhance the integrity of the legislative process. While these provisions are not likely to slow the growth of earmarks, they should make the process more honest.
Ronald D. Utt, Ph.D., is Herbert and Joyce Morgan Senior Research Fellow in the Thomas A. Roe Institute for Economic Policy Studies at The Heritage Foundation.