House Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey, D-Wis., told reporters that he hopes the step will mean 1,000 fewer earmarks and break the linkage between campaign contributions and earmarks that has sparked intense criticism and resulted in ethics probes of several lawmakers.
The election-year step comes after the ethics committee investigated seven members of a Pentagon spending panel for rewarding earmarks to companies whose executives and hired lobbyists showered them with campaign cash. The panel found no linkage and absolved the lawmakers.
The announcement by House Democrats comes as their GOP rivals are weighing giving up so-called earmarks altogether in an appeal to voters frustrated with Washington's free-spending ways.
The subject of earmarks has over the years sparked intense criticism of Congress that's often fueled by wasteful earmarks such as the $200-million-plus "bridge to nowhere" in Alaska that was supposed to connect an island with a population of just 50 or so to the mainland. But among congressional watchdogs the more odious element has been the pay-to-play culture in which campaign cash flows from earmark beneficiaries into the coffers of powerful lawmakers.
"For-profit earmarks are really where the rubber meets the road as far as corruption," said Steve Ellis of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a Washington-based watchdog group that has been critical of earmarking.
"Simply because a member sponsors an earmark for an entity that also happens to be a campaign contributor does not, on these two facts alone, support a claim that a member's actions are being influenced by campaign contributions," the ethics panel found.
"It's just ridiculous on its face," Ellis countered
The new moratorium on earmarks to corporations and for-profit companies comes as a series of scandals has hurt Democrats politically. Rep. Charles Rangel was admonished by the ethics committee over corporate-funded trips - with more serious charges still pending - while the resignation of former Rep. Eric Massa, D-N.Y., after sexual harassment allegations has also harmed the Democrats' political standing.
Chiefly at issue are earmarks that go to companies seeking Pentagon contracts that are funded through the annual defense appropriations bill. Last year's measure contained 1,720 earmarks worth $4.2 billion, according to Taxpayers for Common Sense, which constructs a database using disclosures required under rules put in place when Democrats took over Congress.
Ironically, these much-praised disclosure rules made it easier to draw links between contributors and earmarks.
The potential move by Republicans to unilaterally drop earmarks revives a campaign by GOP Leader John Boehner of Ohio to wean his party off earmarks. He lost that fight in 2008 when seeking to win back the House, and most Republicans - even some die-hard conservatives - ask for earmarks.
Obey says the steps are likely to be a long-term ban and he also announced that the appropriations panel will set up a one-stop link to members' earmark requests instead of requiring them to put them on their own Web sites, where some members still sought to hide them.