Democrats seek to expand GOP earmark overhaul

The House Democrats' campaign chief is taking aim at Republicans for doing little to limit earmarks and is suggesting steps are needed to prevent lawmakers from funding projects to enrich themselves and friends.

The House GOP leadership has scheduled a Thursday vote on a transparency rule intended to shed light on earmark sponsors. "Even at the last gasp they can't even get it right," Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Rahm Emanuel of Illinois said Tuesday.

Emanuel, along with co-sponsor Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., is proposing an amendment to the House rules change, which would require disclosure of earmark sponsors in tax and spending legislation, to broaden its scope by preventing members from personally benefiting from an earmark or bestowing favors to friends.

"For far too long, business as usual has involved individual members doling out favors in appropriations and other bills through the line-items we call earmarks," he wrote in a "Dear Colleague." He added: "Earmark reform must do more than identify an earmark's sponsor. We need to curb the proliferation of unnecessary and suspect earmarks."

Under GOP rule, the number of earmarks has exploded.

Emanuel's amendment also would ban earmarks to any interest employing the spouse or immediate family member of an earmark sponsor, a lobbying firm that employs any spouse or close relative of the earmark sponsor, or employs or is represented by a former employee of the earmark sponsor. And it would prohibit earmarks that would benefit current or former registered lobbyists who serve as chairperson of that member's leadership PAC.

A spokeswoman for House Rules Chairman David Dreier, R-Calif., who has taken the lead in drafting the rules change, said "traditionally, rules changes or new rules don't go through an amendment process," meaning Emanuel is unlikely to be allowed to offer his amendment, although he could force a procedural vote.

Nonetheless, Emanuel is clearly seeking to make the debate uncomfortable for Republicans, including Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., and Appropriations Chairman Jerry Lewis, R-Calif., who have been the subject of reports suggesting they either personally benefited from earmarks or had cozy relationships with lobbyists who benefited.

But Emanuel and Democrats are aiming to capitalize on what they allege is a bungled response to even the whiff of scandal, as well as actual scandals surrounding disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff and former Rep. Randy (Duke) Cunningham, R-Calif., who is serving eight years in a federal penitentiary for taking bribes in return for earmarks.

A spokesman for House Majority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, dismissed the effort as a political stunt. "That's typical of Rahm Emanuel and the House Democrats. They never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity," he said. "They've gone months without ever addressing the earmark reform issue, and now at the last second they've opted for a silly stunt over serious legislative reform. And they wonder why no one takes them seriously?"

Meanwhile, Boehner and GOP leaders are still wrestling with internal schisms, as members of the Appropriations Committee and Transportation and Infrastructure panel have expressed concerns with the proposed earmark rules change.

Boehner told reporters Tuesday the specifics were still in flux. "Everyone wants to have a different description of what an earmark is," he said.

Christian Bourge contributed to this report.

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