The ethics committee's Democratic chairman and its ranking Republican said Thursday that the committee has been reviewing the practice - which came under scrutiny because of a Justice Department criminal investigation of a now-defunct lobbying firm, PMA.
Lobbyists for the firm and their clients - the recipients of lawmakers' pet hometown projects known as "earmarks" - contributed substantial amounts to several lawmakers including three key Democrats on the House Appropriations Committee.
Rep. John Murtha of Pennsylvania has collected $2.37 million from PMA's lobbyists and the companies it has represented since 1989, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks political money. Rep. Pete Visclosky of Indiana has collected $1.36 million, and Rep. Jim Moran of Virginia, $997,348.
The committee has not yet turned the review into a full investigation, a move that would involve much more intensive scrutiny with the possibility of disciplinary action. If the committee does take that step, it could be embarrassing to Democrats and hand Republicans an issue for the 2010 congressional campaigns.
Republicans have been trying to force an investigation of the issue in a series of votes that kept picking up Democratic support mainly from Democrats in their first and second terms.
Democratic leaders, realizing they were losing support from their members, then defensively pushed through a resolution telling the ethics committee to declare whether it is investigating the matter.
The statement by ethics chairman Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif. and ranking Republican Jo Bonner of Alabama, said that the committee previously authorized a review of the allegations relating to the contributions. That review had not been made public.
"The committee is continuing to review these matters," the statement added.
"I'm encouraged that the ethics committee is looking into the PMA scandal," said Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., leader of the Republican efforts that demanded an investigation. "Obviously, with the first appropriations bill scheduled to be on the floor next week, the House of Representatives cannot justify the continued practice of awarding no-bid contracts to private companies. This announcement ought to be a sign that this practice needs to stop immediately."
In 1989, a Capitol Hill staffer named Paul Magliocchetti switched jobs, opening the PMA lobbying firm after leaving the defense subcommittee where Murtha was the brand-new chairman.
Murtha has sponsored hundreds of millions of dollars in directed spending to Magliocchetti's contractor clients, most of whom have offices in Murtha's district.
The total amount of money isn't publicly known because until two years ago, the House refused to identify the sponsors of earmarks. But the figures for the last two years are illustrative. Since 2007, Murtha has earmarked $76.1 million for Magliocchetti's lobbying clients, a sizable portion of the nearly $200 million Murtha has earmarked in the defense budgets during that period.
Magliocchetti was preparing to retire when FBI agents raided his Washington-area firm last November and seized his firm's campaign records.
Last month, another shoe dropped. A federal grand jury subpoenaed the third-ranking Democrat on Murtha's subcommittee, Visclosky.
He was forced to relinquish control of a key energy-and-water spending bill that he would have controlled as chairman of the Appropriations energy and water subcommittee.