Monday, Oct. 2, 2006 | By now, California’s 50th Congressional District knows a thing or two about earmarks.

Randy “Duke” Cunningham made earmarks infamous when he used them to reward defense contractors who bribed him with millions of dollars worth of real estate, antique furnishings and a yacht.

Last week, Cunningham’s successor, Rep. Brian Bilbray, introduced the Budget and Transparency Act, which he said would force members of Congress to own up to creating earmarks, used to anonymously insert funding for pet projects in larger and often unrelated bills. The legislation would also shift Congress from an annual to a biennial budget process.

While government watchdogs and earmark-reform proponents are willing to credit Bilbray’s legislation as a step in the right direction, they say it lacks substance and has next to no chance of passing this year.

They say Bilbray’s earmark proposal wouldn’t eliminate the type of earmarks Cunningham exploited and would still leave loopholes for members of Congress to anonymously give tax breaks to special interests. Some also question the timing of the legislation, introduced just days before Congress adjourned. They say that the biennial budget is a decades-old proposal that’s chockablock with the potential to undermine the associated earmark reform.

“I don’t think this is a serious legislation effort, I think it’s a reelection tactic,” said Adam Hughes, director of federal fiscal policy for OMB Watch, a nonpartisan organization that promotes government accountability. “He wants to be able to say that when he runs for reelection in November that he tried to get rid of earmarks.”

Bilbray’s spokesman declined to comment for this story. He said Bilbray was voting on the House floor and was unavailable. But in a commentary published in the North County Times on Thursday, Bilbray touted his bill as “not just about restoring fiscal accountability and transparency to Congress: It is a first step in a larger effort to regain the trust and confidence of the American people.”

Hughes credits Bilbray for raising the issue but said the earmark portion of Bilbray’s legislation is very similar to other bills proposed in the House this year and lacks any fresh ideas.

“I don’t think that he’s the lone wolf suggesting that we disclose earmarks,” Hughes said. “I think he is kind of jumping on a train that has already left the station.”

Hughes said that like other recent attempts at earmark reform, Bilbray’s bill stops short of forcing members of Congress to reveal their identity when using an earmark to grant federal tax breaks to any group larger than one individual.

“That’s practically useless,” Hughes said. “There is hardly ever a tax credit that is written for one beneficiary.”

Steve Ellis, a vice president with Taxpayers for Common Sense, a nonpartisan budget oversight group, said a larger shortcoming in Bilbray’s legislation is that it narrowly defines earmarks as only those appropriations that go to non-federal entities.

Ellis pointed out that Cunningham used earmarks to direct funding to the Department of Defense, not the private sector. He said that money was then directed to defense contractors that plied Cunningham with bribes.

Bilbray’s legislation wouldn’t have forced Cunningham to disclose his identity, and Cunningham’s tactics are a problem that Ellis said persists.

For example, during last week’s consideration of the defense budget, the head of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., successfully directed $4.6 million to an Army acoustics program housed at the University of Mississippi, Cochran’s alma mater, Ellis said.

Cochran wouldn’t have to disclose his identity under Bilbray’s proposed legislation, Ellis said.

“It allows them to launder money through government agencies that in reality are earmarked to private companies, sates agencies or localities,” Ellis said. “It’s a huge loophole that would allow thousands of earmarks to remain in orphan status. We wouldn’t know their maternity or paternity.”

Bilbray’s biennial budget proposal received a mixed reception from several watchdog organizations.

“Basically, we think it’s a great bill,” said Tom Finnigan, spokesperson for Citizens Against Government Waste, a nonpartisan organization that has long supported a two-year budget cycle.

Under Bilbray’s bill, the federal government would no longer approve a budget every year and instead approve a two-year budget in non-election years. Bilbray argues that a longer budget cycle would give Congress more time to spend on its oversight duties and lessen the influence of election-year politics on budget decisions.

But others warn that a biennial-budget proposal could undermine the earmark reform efforts that comprise the other half of Bilbray’s legislation. Chris Edwards, an economist with the Cato Institute, a nonprofit libertarian research group, said budget reformers have discussed the biennial budget cycle for nearly two decades but the jury is still out on its impact.

Edwards said the inability of Congress to see two years down the road could increase the number of supplemental spending bills, which break previously established budget agreements and are often not subject to normal procedural rules, including those governing earmarks.

Supplemental spending bills, which have spiked in recent years as the Bush Administration has appealed for funding for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as Hurricane Katrina, are often rushed through and don’t get the usual scrutiny that appropriations bills are afforded, Edwards said. That makes government less transparent.

The biennial budget proposal isn’t unworthy of consideration, Edwards and Finnigan said, but Bilbray’s legislation leaves plenty of room for improvement.

“A good addition to the Bilbray bill would be banning supplementals or adding stronger rules to ensure that these earmark rules are enforced under supplementals,” Edwards said.

But Bilbray likely won’t have much of a chance to improve his bill this year as Congress is scheduled to reconvene for just a one-week session in November after the elections. Without the support of the Republican leadership, there’s little likelihood that the House will hear Bilbray’s bill then. He’ll have to reintroduce the legislation next year if he defeats Francine Busby, his opponent in the November election.

“Just because it’s introduced two days before the end of the session doesn’t mean that it’s not a genuine effort,” Hughes said. “But the fact that it was introduced two days before the end of the session does mean that he will use it in November.”

Observers say it will be interesting to watch how Bilbray represents his reform efforts to his constituents.

“Obviously it gives Congressman Bilbray the opportunity to say he did something on earmarks heading into the election,” Ellis said. “If he goes home and talks about how he’s working hard and introduced a bill on earmarks that’s overstating what he’s done.”

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