It appears members of the House ethics committee want to have it both ways. When it came time to vote yesterday on a series of amendments to strip earmarks from the pork-laden defense appropriations bill, each of the panel’s ten members voted “present,” declining to support or oppose the measures. Presumably these lawmakers were trying to demonstrate their impartiality, since they are presently investigating earmarks steered to clients of the PMA Group, the now defunct lobbying firm founded by an ex-aide to Jack Murtha. (Under scrutiny along with Murtha are Democratic Reps. Peter Visclosky of Indiana and James Moran of Virginia, who also had PMA ties.) Yet, at the very same time as these lawmakers were abstaining from these votes, they had their own pet projects tucked into the approps bill. Twenty nine of them, according to the Washington Post, worth $59 million.
Congressional ethics experts said the ethics committee earmarks create at least the appearance of a conflict of interest, and some in the public would naturally question how thoroughly the committee might investigate members on the subcommittee that granted their funding wishes.
“At the same time the committee is investigating the ties between lobby shops and earmarks and appropriators, they are actually playing the game themselves,” said Steve Ellis, of the watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense. “It’s hard not to see some conflict of interest in that.”
Ethics committee chair Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), who has three earmarks in the bill, explained to the Post: “When one is appointed to the ethics committee, one is not relieved of the responsibility to represent one’s district.” That is, just because she’s leading an investigation into the corrupting powers of pork, doesn’t mean she’s going to stop bringing home the bacon herself. Then why vote “present” on the earmark amendments? Perhaps to avoid news stories questioning whether ethics committee members can truly investigate earmarks, when they themselves rely on them to direct funding to their districts. Too late.