Common Cause calls on House to prohibit earmarks for campaign contributors

Perception of quid pro quo undermines public trust in “the People’s House”

Common Cause calls on US House Members to end the practice of directing earmarks to their own campaign contributors, urging Representatives to support both an ethics rule change and the Clean Law for Earmark Accountability Reform (CLEAR) Act.

“Earmarks cost taxpayers billions of dollars each year and revelations of wasteful projects like the ‘Bridge to Nowhere’ and others have undermined voters’ confidence in the ability of Congress to allocate tax dollars in the public interest,” Common Cause President Bob Edgar wrote in a letter to all House Members. The letter was in response to the ongoing controversy around earmarks and campaign contributions and Rep. John Murtha (D-PA) and the former PMA lobby shop.

The letter continues: “The most direct way to ensure that earmarks are used only for suitable public purposes is to eliminate the possibility that Members of Congress could use earmarks to reward campaign contributors or to solicit further contributions.”

Members of Congress are forbidden from requesting an earmark in which the Member or the Member’s spouse has a financial interest. However, the House Ethics Manual specifically exempts campaign contributions from the definition of “financial interest.”

The House rule change, requested by Rep. Jeff Flake (R-AZ), would include campaign contributions in the “interest” definition.

The CLEAR Act (H.R. 2038), sponsored by Rep. Paul Hodes (D-NH), would ban Members of Congress from accepting any campaign contributions from a company’s PAC, executives, or lobbyists, if they request an earmark for that company in the election cycle. The actions of the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee members embroiled in the recent PMA scandal would have been restricted under such a regime.

Both the rule change and the CLEAR Act would mark a clear break from the current rule, which, according to Common Cause’s letter, “ignores both the public perception that earmarks are awarded as a quid pro quo for major campaign contributors and the political reality that campaign funds are the coin of the realm among Members of Congress, who must spend much of their time fundraising.”

“Nothing less than the public’s faith in their government lies at stake here,”Edgar wrote. “We are distressed to see public trust in the ‘People’s House’ so seriously eroded.”

Common Cause continues to work to pass the Fair Elections Now Act (H.R. 1826 / S.752) as the comprehensive solution to the pay-to-play culture in Washington, DC, which would create a citizen-funded election system for Congress in which candidates could run for office on a blend of small donations and public funds.