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Dicks gets shot at raising House’s ethical bar

Post by Kim Bradford on March 15, 2010 at 5:35 pm |
March 15, 2010 5:35 pm

This editorial will appear in Tuesday’s print edition.

U.S. Rep. Norm Dicks is making a good first mark as he embarks on a powerful role in Congress.

Dicks, the Belfair Democrat who became chairman of the House Appropriations Committee’s defense subcommittee this month, is the co-author of House Democrats’ new ban on corporate earmarks.

He and Rep. David Obey, a Wisconsin Democrat and chairman of the House Committee on Appropriations, announced the rule last week.

Earmark reform is both timely and overdue. Days before House Democrats unveiled the ban, an ethics investigation had cleared Dicks and other members of Congress of trading earmarks for campaign contributions.

That investigation certainly helped bring the issue to the fore, but so too did changes in congressional leadership. The late chairman of the defense subcommittee, Rep. John Murtha, was a notorious pork barreler and had resisted past efforts to curtail such dictates.

Asked by The New York Times if Murtha’s death helped clear the way for reform, Obey said, “I’m not going to comment on someone who’s gone. All I will say is that Norm Dicks understands the process.”

Understand the process, he does.

Dicks has held his own in bringing home the bacon. He asserts, rightly so, that Congress should not abdicate its power over the purse strings to the executive branch. His work to secure funding for home-state projects has helped further many worthwhile programs.

But earmarks have exploded over the last 30 years, some of them less than worthy and less than ethical. Taxpayers for Common Sense counted 9,500 earmarks worth $16 billion in appropriations bills last year. Defense spending bills usually have more than their share.

The House’s rules won’t put an end to pork, not by far. They only prohibit earmarks to for-profit entities, which constitute only about 10 percent of all earmarks. They also only apply to earmarks that Congress deems earmarks. Taxpayers for Common Sense identified about $5.9 billion this year that it considered earmarks but Congress did not.

What’s more, the rules affect only bills that come from the appropriations committee (the House Transportation Committee also makes good use of earmarks) in the House. The Senate is so far refusing to go along with the ban, meaning that many earmarks could still make it to the president’s desk.

As limited as it is, the House’s moratorium is a step toward curbing the kind of set-asides that one good-government group called “ground zero for pay-to-play.”

But, with lobbyists and lawmakers already envisioning end runs, the new rule is only as good as appropriations leaders’ resolve to enforce it. Dicks has a key opportunity to restore integrity to the appropriating process.

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