House OKs ethics bill that emphasizes transparency

Legislation includes language to require disclosure of earmarks, but the information would not need to be provided in a searchable format.

The morning after the home of Sen. Ted Stevens was raided in a federal investigation over his ties with lobbyists, the House on Tuesday voted 411-8 for a lobbying and ethics reform package.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., is touting the accomplishment as the fulfillment of an election promise to voters to clean up Congress. "Democrats are following through on our promise to change the way business is done in Washington," she said.

The bill, S. 1, would create greater transparency, with campaigns being required to disclose contribution "bundling" operations of more than $15,000. Corporate travel and parties paid for by lobbyists also would be limited, and lobbyists would have to disclose their activities twice a year in a searchable online database. House members would have to file personal financial disclosures and travel reports in a similar database.

The legislation further includes disclosure requirements for the first time on earmarks, money reserved for lawmakers' pet projects that usually are added in conference or committee reports rather than legislative language.

Bill Allison, a senior fellow at the Sunlight Foundation, said the current practice has made it difficult if not impossible to learn which members requested specific earmarks, the names of the project, the recipients and the amounts.

"We've never had that before," Allison said. "We just don't have it as easily searchable and transparent as we would like."

The earmarks would have to be disclosed online within 48 hours before Senate votes on the legislation. But the bill would not require the information to be disclosed in a searchable format. Conference reports would be available online to the public 48 hours before votes.

While the Sunlight Foundation is pleased with the "unprecedented disclosure" in the bill, Allison and other advocates of greater online transparency, like the online group Porkbusters, complain that the earmark disclosure provisions were watered down from the version of the measure the House passed in May before closed-door negotiations with the Senate.

Another less stringent feature of the compromise bill would allow the Senate majority leader, rather than the parliamentarian, to determine whether a conference report meets earmark disclosure rules. Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., called that change "ludicrous."

The Senate is expected to vote on the final measure as early as Thursday.

Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., is promising to seek an amendment to have the parliamentarian oversee earmark disclosures. "The culture of earmarks is what drives the culture of corruption, and if we don't fix the earmark rules in this bill, we will continue to have business as usual in Washington," DeMint said in a statement.

Conservative blogger Ed Morrissey of Captain's Quarters agreed, calling the allegations that led to the FBI and IRS raid of the home of Commerce Committee Chairman Stevens, R-Alaska, the "wages of pork."

Contractors have told a grand jury that oil company executives from Veco oversaw the remodeling of Stevens' home. He is under investigation for connections to Veco, which has received tens of millions of dollars in federal contracts.

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