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Watchdogs and Lobbyists Team Up to Reform Earmarks

Watchdog groups tend to cry foul when lobbyists solicit earmarks for their corporate clients from legislators. Lobbyists, in turn, often blame the groups for conjuring up images of corruption when congressmen are merely responding to their constituents’ needs. Yesterday, however, members of both tribes got together and presented a plan they’ve hatched for reforming the system through which congressmen appropriate funds for projects in their state or districts:

The plan, which the lobbyists and watchdog groups have been presenting to Congressional staff members in recent closed-door meetings, would limit the contributions that lawmakers can take from the beneficiaries of earmarks they arrange. Top officials from companies getting earmarks would be limited to donating $5,000 to lawmakers in each two-year election cycle, and they would not be allowed to give at all while seeking an earmark.

In addition, legislative staff working on earmarks would be banned from participating in campaign fund-raising — a practice that drew sharp criticism in a recent investigation by the Office of Congressional Ethics involving earmarks.

And to promote transparency, Congress would be required to disclose all earmarks on a central database, submit to audits by the Government Accountability Office and certify that the contractors are qualified to do the work.

Any coherent system, members of both camps agree, would be better than the current patchwork of partial regulations that Congress has imposed. At present, House Republicans have forsworn the process; House Democrats have banned earmarks for commercial businesses; and the Senate has continued par for the course. The result is that House members have often simply put in requests for earmarks from their respective Senators, while for-profit businesses have often funneled their same requests through affiliated non-profit organizations.

The odd couple that initiated the process was Rich Gold, a lobbyist for Holland & Knight, and Melanie Sloan, who leads Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW). The two met over the summer before seeking out partners to join their campaign. They don’t have active backing in Congress yet but the involved groups claim that their unlikely coalition will build momentum by itself:

Mr. Gold said in an interview that Congressional aides have asked incredulously: “Now, who are you doing this with again? And how did this happen?”

He said he already received some criticism from fellow lobbyists. “I’m wearing a flak jacket today” to withstand the attacks, he said, “but to be honest, so are the good government groups from their own supporters. We are strange bedfellows.”

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