The WasteWatcher: The Staff Blog of Citizens Against Government Waste

New Senate Ethics Bill

The WasteWatcher is the staff blog of Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW) and the Council for Citizens Against Government Waste (CCAGW). For questions, contact blog@cagw.org.


“Members of Congress have reproductive organs the size of BBs,” so said Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Colo.) in challenging his colleagues to enact real earmark reform.  Alas, Sen. Coburn was proven correct as the Senate voted 83-14 to approve S. 1, misnamed “the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act.” 

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) hailed S. 1 as the “the most sweeping ethics and lobbying reforms in generations.”  That hyperbolic generalization obscures the mediocre nature of the final bill.  Earmark transparency provisions that had passed as part of S. 1 by a vote of 96-2 in January of 2007 were gutted as a result of a secret, backroom conference deal by Majority Leader Reid and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). 

The original earmark reform language of S. 1 (which mirrored House rules established when the Democrats took charge of Congress in January 2007), would have blocked consideration of any bill in conference unless all earmarks were disclosed in advance.  That provision no longer exists.  The original Senate-passed bill also would have required Congress to create a searchable database of earmarks and make it available to taxpayers; however, S. 1 now only requires Congress to establish such a database “if practicable.”  In addition, the original Senate legislation authorized the disinterested Senate Parliamentarian to review bills to be sure that earmarks were accompanied by the proper certifications and that members of Congress had met all earmark disclosure requirements.  In the new compromise bill, that authority rests with the Senate Majority Leader and certain committee chairmen, including Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.), a.k.a. the “King of Pork.”

The Senate-passed bill had contained a prohibition on sponsoring earmarks that would financially benefit a member of Congress or the member’s family was also eviscerated.  In the Reid-Pelosi compromise language, as long as the earmark can be claimed to benefit others as well, it will be permitted if it also happens to benefit the member.  The new legislation contains no mention of family members at all.  The final bill also eliminates the prohibition on trading earmarks for votes. 

Majority Leader Reid and Speaker Pelosi didn’t gut the earmark reform provisions all by themselves.  They had the tacit support of the Republican leadership in the Senate, as well as a wink and a nod from Republican members who have become addicted to earmarks.  Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) led 30 other Republican senators to vote with the Democrats against the efforts of Sens. Coburn and Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) to restore the original earmark reform language.  McConnell also publicly took a jab at Coburn and DeMint, carping that their aggressive anti-pork posture had provoked the Democrats into shutting Republicans out of final negotiations over the bill. 

After the final vote, a disappointed Sen. Coburn had a few choice words that summed up the whole fiasco.  He stated, “What we have before us today is not a landmark accomplishment, but a landmark betrayal.  Instead of draining the swamp, this bill gives the alligators new rights.” 

Jay Boresi & Dashle Gunn Kelley

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