Did Dems Cut a Hole in Their Own Ethics Law?

When no one was looking, someone cut a hole out of the Democrats' much-hyped ethics bill. A watchdog group which caught it suspects the Democrats of undermining their own effort to clean up Capitol Hill.

Dubbed "the biggest reform effort in a generation" by its sponsor, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., the Legislative Transparency and Accountability Act of 2007 represented the Democrats' plan "to change the way Washington works."

Some aspects were tough, like language ending lawmakers' free trips on corporate jets, or a section curbing gifts from lobbyists to lawmakers and staff.

But one provision was all but neutered with a subtle edit, committed sometime between the Senate's overwhelming vote to approve the bill and the application of the president's signature.

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The victim of the edit: a section that would boost public disclosure of earmarking. As it was approved by the Senate, the 2007 ethics bill required senators to disclose not only which earmarks they've requested, but also the name and location of each intended recipient.

For instance, a $1 million earmark for an Army purchase may in fact be directed at a manufacturer in a senator's home state. The bill also required senators to detail the purpose of the earmark.

But the law as Bush signed it requires senators to publicly swear that neither they nor their family will personally benefit from any of the earmarks they have inserted. House members must still disclose the companies who stand to gain from their action.

"This is like Lucy and the football. The Senate leadership yanked [the provision] away from us," said Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, which discovered it.

When asked for comment on the change, a spokesman for Reid told the Blotter on ABCNews.com, "In the course of finalizing the ethics law, we refined various provisions to make them rational, workable and cohesive." Of the final version, he said it "provides ample public disclosure of earmarks in a workable fashion."

Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., a longtime antagonist of the earmarking system, disagreed.

"Voters who expected greater transparency and openness in Washington won't be pleased to learn about another round of secrecy and deception," he said.

The disclosure provision was meant to cut down on earmark abuse -- instances where lawmakers use earmarks to funnel taxpayer money to pet projects or businesses belonging to major campaign donors.

An extreme version of earmark abuse brought down former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham, who wrote tens of millions of dollars in earmarks for companies which bribed him with boats, a Rolls-Royce, antiques, prostitutes and cash. He pleaded guilty to corruption charges and is serving an eight-year, four-month prison sentence.

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