McCain, Feingold want to eliminate earmarks with new bill
Sens. John McCain and Russ Feingold unveiled earmark-reform legislation Wednesday that they hope will all but eliminate a practice they consider corrupt and obsolete.
Seattle Times staff reporter
John McCain calls earmarks corrupt. Now he's back in the Senate trying to get rid of them.
The Arizona Republican on Wednesday unveiled legislation to force many earmarks to muster at least 60 votes to pass the Senate.
"We're trying to eliminate earmarks," McCain said in a telephone interview. "We're not trying to cut them in half."
He was part of a bipartisan group of senators that wants to clamp down on the billions of dollars in pet projects that their colleagues slip into bills with little oversight.
McCain was joined by Sen. Russell Feingold, D-Wis., his partner in past campaign-finance reform, and Sens. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., and Claire McCaskill, D-Mo.
The four will have a tough fight. Although two-thirds of Americans in one poll said earmarks are unacceptable, many lawmakers passionately defend the practice as a valuable service to their districts or states. Lawmakers often give government contracts to those who have contributed to their campaigns, a practice critics deride as "circular fundraising."
"I admit there's a lot of resistance," Feingold said. "[But] we have more political momentum given the environment that Sen. Obama has helped usher in. It gives us a better chance than we've had in the past."
Sponsors of the Feingold-McCain measure plan to add it to the economic-stimulus package. Congress in 2007 passed a major ethics-reform bill that changed the secretive process and required lawmakers for the first time to disclose their earmarks.
But a Seattle Times investigation of the 2008 defense bill found that lawmakers exploited loopholes in that law to avoid disclosing $3.5 billion in earmarks. Feingold said his legislation would eliminate that problem because it allows lawmakers to challenge unauthorized or undisclosed earmarks.
Once challenged, the pet project would require a supermajority of 60 votes to stay in the spending bill. The challenge would strip the appropriations committees of much of their power to put earmarks in spending bills.
The measure would require all earmarks to be put in a searchable database 48 hours before the Senate vote. And it would require anyone getting a federal contract to disclose how much they spent on lobbying.
Now that he's not running for president, McCain said he'll root out hidden earmarks and other abuses. "I intend to have much more rigorous oversight of the process," he said.
On Tuesday, in a move that surprised some, the chairmen of the House and Senate appropriations committees changed congressional rules to require lawmakers to post all earmarks requests, even the unsuccessful ones, on their congressional Web sites.
Rep. David Obey, D-Wis., and Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, chair the appropriations committees and personally can change certain rules. The chairmen also are requiring the pet projects to be made public earlier in the process so others can scrutinize them.
"They really pulled a rabbit out of their hats," said Steve Ellis, of Taxpayers for Common Sense.
Earmarks have been at the center of scandals in Congress. Most recently, a jury in Washington, D.C., found Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, guilty of failing to disclose more than $250,000 in gifts from a businessman whose company benefitted from Stevens' earmarks.
President-elect Obama has vowed to keep earmarks out of the economic stimulus bill. McCain and his co-sponsors said they took it as an encouraging sign that the new president will tackle the issue.
McCaskill and Coburn have close ties to Obama.
Feingold said he hopes to win the incoming president's support, despite the opposition Obama will likely face in Congress.
"It would take real guts. It would not be an easy battle," Feingold said. "But he has the potential to be the president to make this practice almost obsolete."
David Heath: email@example.com or 206-464-2136.
Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company
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