WASHINGTON — When Democrats regained control of Congress three years ago, one first step to combat what they called the “culture of corruption” in Washington was to tighten restrictions on earmarks — the notorious financial set-asides that had become a symbol of political favor trading.
But a new interpretation of ethics rules is threatening to make it easier for lawmakers to give earmarks to big campaign contributors and expose the process to greater abuse than before, legal analysts and some lawmakers say. Their concerns were prompted by a report last week from the House ethics committee that cleared seven House members, all on the defense appropriations subcommittee, of allegations that they had improperly given tens of millions of dollars in earmarks to political contributors.
Although investigators found indications that at least two of the members had at least implicitly rewarded donors with earmarks, the committee said that the appearance of a financial reward for donors does not amount to an ethical breach in itself.
“Simply because a member sponsors an earmark for an entity that also happens to be a campaign contributor does not, on these two facts alone, support a claim that a member’s actions are being influenced by campaign contributions,” the committee, which is made up of five Democrats and five Republicans, concluded in its report.
“This will embolden members,” Representative Jeff Flake, an Arizona Republican who has been a sharp critic of earmarks, warned in an interview on Thursday. “In essence, unless you’re caught on the phone with a lobbyist saying ‘Contribute or else you don’t get an earmark,’ then you’re fine,” he said. “ That’s the clear message here.”
The ruling from the ethics committee came last Friday — the same day the panel admonished Representative Charles B. Rangel for accepting a trip to the Caribbean that was underwritten by corporate sponsors.
While the Rangel case has become a hot political issue and has forced the longtime lawmaker to give up his chairmanship of the Ways and Means Committee, the earmark decision has broader ethical implications for the House in potentially raising the bar on what constitutes unethical conduct in doling out earmarks.
Earmarks allow individual members and committees to insert financing for lucrative special projects — worth billions of dollars — outside the normal budgeting and review process.
Reforms put in place in 2007 by the Democratic-controlled Congress sought to curb earmark abuses by forcing members to disclose the earmarks that they had requested and to verify that they had no financial interest in the projects being financed. The House ethics manual also forbids “any link” between a campaign contribution and an official action, and legal analysts say this standard — at least prior to the ethics committee’s decision last week — discouraged even the appearance of a connection between a lawmaker’s receiving a donation and giving out an earmark.
The ethics committee acknowledged that there was a “widespread perception” among recipients of earmarks in the private sector that giving political donations to members increased their chances of getting earmarks.