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Congress lifts blinds on its spending

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Since last March, when former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R) of California was convicted of taking bribes, Congress has struggled to find agreement on how to reform ethics and lobbying rules, without success. The big lobby-reform bills remain deadlocked between the House and Senate.

The next battle, expected in the House Thursday, is over how much members of Congress and the public will know about the earmarks tacked onto spending bills before they come up for a vote. Sensing rising public objection to earmarks, appropriators in the House and Senate have instituted their own procedural reforms for fiscal year 2007 spending bills.

For example, appropriators are limiting the number of projects members can propose, as well as making the projects more visible to the public earlier in the process. In the House, member requests for projects this year declined 37 percent, or about $7.5 billion, from last year. House appropriators are also often requiring a local spending match for some economic-development earmarks, a move they say will discourage frivolous projects.

"We were getting about 25 requests per member. Now it's an average of 10," says John Scofield, a spokesman for the House Appropriations Committee. "It helps us to do better oversight and weed out the bad ones." In addition, House appropriators say they will avoid adding earmarks when House and Senate conferees reconcile two versions of a spending bill – a source of abuse in the past.

While Appropriations Committee members have borne much of the criticism for earmarking, the practice exists in other committees as well. Congress included 6,373 earmarks in the last highway bill, amounting to $24.2 billion. The recent Water Research Development Act included 250 earmarks at a cost of $11 billion. As of press time, the House version of earmark reform still applied mainly to the Appropriations Committee.

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