WASHINGTON -- When Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid picked up his ball and went home following his staged all-night session last week, he saved from possible embarrassment one of the least regular members of his Democratic caucus: Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska. Reform Republican Sen. Tom Coburn had ready a Defense authorization bill amendment to remove Nelson's earmark funding a Nebraska-based company whose officials include Nelson's son. Such an effort became impossible when Reid pulled down the bill.
That Reid's action would have this effect was mere coincidence. He knew that Sen. Carl Levin's amendment to the Defense bill mandating a troop withdrawal from Iraq would fall short of the 60 senators needed to cut off debate, and planned from the start to pull the bill after the all-night debate, designed to satisfy anti-war zealots, was completed. But Reid also is working behind the scenes with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to undermine transparency of earmarks and prevent open debate on spending proposals such as Nelson's.
These antics fit the continuing decline of the Senate, including an unwritten rules change requiring 60 votes (out of 100) to pass any meaningful bill. When I arrived on Capitol Hill 50 years ago, Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson (like Reid today) confronted a slim Democratic Senate majority and a Republican president but was not burdened with the 60-vote rule. While Johnson used chicanery, Reid resorts to brute force that shatters the Senate's facade of civilized discourse. Reid is plotting to strip anti-earmark transparency from the final version of ethics legislation passed by both the Senate and House, with tacit support from Republican senators and the GOP leadership.
At stake is the fate of Coburn's "Reid Amendment" previously passed by the Senate -- so-called because it would bar earmarks benefiting a senator's family members such as Reid's four lobbyist sons and son-in-law. Nelson's current $7.5 million earmark for software helps 21st Century Systems Inc. (21 CSI), which employs the senator's son, Patrick Nelson, as its marketing director. 21 CSI gets 80 percent of its funds from federal grants, mostly from earmarks. With nine offices scattered among states that are represented by appropriators in Congress, the company in recent years has spent $1.1 million to lobby Congress and $160,000 in congressional campaign contributions. "As of April," the Omaha World-Herald reported, "only one piece of [21 CSI] software has been used -- to help guard a single Marine camp in Iraq -- and it was no longer in use."
In requesting the 21 CSI earmark, Nelson did not disclose his son's employment there. "There's no requirement that he disclose that," a Nelson spokesman told this column. "But frankly, in this case, we didn't disclose it because it's so public." An April 24 letter from Armed Services Committee Chairman Levin, giving all senators instructions on how to request earmarks, makes no mention of the "Reid Amendment" passed by the Senate three months earlier but requires only certification that no senator's spouse will benefit from an earmark. Inclusion of Nelson's son, however, would be required if and when the ethics bill provision passes.
When the Defense authorization bill came up last week, Coburn prepared amendments to eliminate the Nelson earmark and the most notorious earmark now pending in Congress: Rep. John Murtha's proposed $23 million for the National Drug Intelligence Center in his Pennsylvania district. Reid's game plan to satisfy anti-war activists with an all-night debate averted debate for now on these two earmarks.
Reid, the soft-spoken trial lawyer from Searchlight, Nev., in his tumultuous six and one-half months as majority leader has tended to suppress free expression in the self-proclaimed World's Greatest Deliberative Body. He last week cut off an attempt to respond to him by Sen. Arlen Specter, the veteran moderate Republican, in an abrupt way that I had not witnessed in a half-century of Senate-watching. Neither had Specter. When Specter finally got the Senate floor, he declared: "Nothing is done here until the majority leader decides to exercise his power to keep the Senate in all night on a meaningless, insulting session. . . . Last night's performance made us the laughingstock of the world." It may get worse if plans to eviscerate ethics legislation are pursued.