Originally, when House and Senate versions of the bill passed from their separate chambers, both contained identical language regarding earmark reform. During negotiations between the House and Senate to work out differences between their bills-- called a “conference report”—a change was made to the Senate disclosure requirements.
“It was such a subtle change with huge ramifications. Just a couple words,” Ellis said. The conference process for this bill was not done in public view. This was largely because earmark-reform champions Republican Sens. Tom Coburn (Okla.) and Jim DeMint (S.C.) refused to participate due to suspicions that their reforms would be gutted.
As a result, differences were worked out and new rules were inserted in a back and forth negotiation process between the House and Senate that staffers call “ping-ponging.” Then the final version was signed by the President on September 14.
A senior Republican staffer said those primarily involved in the negotiations were Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.), House Speaker Rep. Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wisc.), Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and other members of the Senate Rules Committee.
DeMint’s press secretary Wesley Denton laid the blame on both parties for letting this change slip by. “Democrats and Republicans alike want to give the appearance of earmark reform, but they don’t want to live by it.”
Senators have even been resistant to submitting the “no pecuniary interest” letters. On October 1, Chairman of the Armed Services Committee Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) issued a joint letter to remind their colleagues there were “certifications” missing for earmark requests made in the defense authorization bill. The original deadline to turn the “no pecuniary interest” statements was September 14. It was extended to October 5.
Coburn’s spokesmen Jon Hart noted the change would also give House members a way to hide their earmarks. It “essentially creates a secret chamber for earmarking,” Hart said. “All the questionable earmarks now can easily be shuttled from the House to the Senate” to escape disclosure requirements.
“You might as well call it the Abramoff Corridor,” Hart joked.