A three-word rule change quietly made to Congress’s newly-enacted lobby reform package was recently discovered that significantly reduces disclosure requirements for the earmarks each senator requests.
The new ethics bill, which was signed into law in September, purported to require members of both the House and Senate to make public a signed letter that included the name and address of the intended recipient, or location of any requested earmark.
The final bill, however, contained an exception for members of the Senate. Instead, senators who request earmarks are only required to make public a letter that verifies he or she has “no pecuniary interest” their request.
Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, said he caught the change when he met opposition from Senate Appropriation staff when he tried to obtain the public letters with the earmark information—they weren’t there. Instead, there were only “no pecuniary interest” letters on file. When he protested, he was told the law was being followed.
“So, there was a discrepancy between what the Appropriations committee was saying and what was supposed to be done,” Ellis said in a phone interview. This is what prompted Ellis to investigate.
Ellis later found that the law had been followed, but it wasn’t the law that had been touted to promote transparency in the earmarking process.
The only thing a senator is now required by law to do is to verify he or she has no financial interest in the earmarks he or she seeks. Ellis sarcastically called this an “I’m not a crook” statement.
Upon making this finding, Ellis published a detailed explanation of the rule change on his website on September 25.
Bill Allison, senior fellow of the Sunlight Foundation, said the change was a “disappointment that no one knew about until the last minute.” His organization utilizes the Internet to make government more transparent and has worked with Taxpayers for Common Sense to publish all earmarks in a free online, searchable database at www.Earmarkwatch.org.