Household Exception for House

Posted November 21, 2007 at 2:34pm

Thanks to new, narrowly written House earmark disclosure rules, when House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.) earmarked $235,000 for a fitness center serving low-income residents of Columbia, S.C., he did not have to publicly disclose that his daughter works for the city-owned center as its marketing and membership director.

The earmark — part of a long-standing relationship between Clyburn and the Drew Wellness Center that predates by several years his daughter’s employment there — is the kind of spending that rarely draws scrutiny. But the lack of required disclosure of Clyburn’s daughter’s ties to the center, something that would have been required in the Senate, highlights what watchdogs argue is a glaring gap in Congressional ethics rules.

Bill Allison, a senior fellow with the Sunlight Foundation government accountability group, said that while Congress made significant improvements this year, “both the Senate and the House stopped a little short of the mark” in writing their new earmark disclosure rules.

Allison said further reforms requiring public disclosure of other family members’ interests — and the interests of staff and their families and large campaign contributors — are also needed to increase transparency and reduce public skepticism.

“It’s very good that the House requires them to disclose benefits to spouses, but that leaves out children and other family members,” Allison said, adding that Clyburn “seems to be in the letter of the law, but that’s sort of the problem. The law doesn’t go far enough.”

The center is part of a nearly decade-long effort by the city of Columbia and Clyburn to revitalize an economically depressed part of the city. Working with state and local officials, Clyburn in 1999 helped the city secure $2.5 million in Hope VI redevelopment grants from the Department of Housing and Urban Development for the community, which included construction of new low-income housing and a new grocery store.

The Drew Wellness Center was built as part of the city’s redevelopment plan, and in 2003 Clyburn successfully included a $990,000 earmark for construction of the center in the fiscal 2003 omnibus appropriations bill.

The latest $235,000 earmark — requested by city officials and included in the Labor and Health and Human Services spending bill that President Bush vetoed earlier this month — would go toward a “Youth Wellness” program at the center.

Clyburn spokeswoman Kristie Greco said none of the funding would go toward projects involving Clyburn’s daughter Angela and noted that she has worked for the center for just under two years.

Greco said the earmark is part of Clyburn’s efforts to address significant disparities in public health spending in black and low-income communities along the Interstate 95 “corridor of shame” in the Southern United States. Clyburn is “a major champion in addressing health disparities in his communities,” Greco argued, adding that ensuring that funding goes to projects addressing health issues in his district is “the role he believes he should be playing as a Member of Congress.”

Over the past several years, the practice of earmarking has come under increased scrutiny from the public and federal law enforcement officials, particularly those involving family members of lawmakers or Congressional staff.

In 2006, then-Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.) came under fire for earmarking millions of dollars to the Inland Northwest Space Alliance while his daughter served on the group’s board of directors.

The FBI and other federal agencies have also launched an investigation into the Alaska Fisheries Marketing Board, a nonprofit created by Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) where his son, Ben, sat on the board of directors. Stevens earmarked more than $30 million to the group.

More recently, Rep. Ralph Regula (R-Ohio) was sharply criticized after The New York Times reported that he earmarked $130,000 for a library founded by his wife that employs his daughter.

Although the House requires lawmakers to disclose financial benefits to themselves or their spouses when requesting an earmark, the new rules do not cover children or other family members.

In the Senate, however, the increase in public attention to earmarks prompted Appropriations Chairman Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) earlier this year to begin requiring all staff on the committee to provide him with financial conflict-of-interest disclosures that cover not only themselves and their spouses, but also their parents and children.

Senate conservatives also inserted into the ethics bill expansive disclosure provisions that covered lawmakers, their spouses, their children, parents and even stepparents. However, those rules were ultimately scaled back by Democrats to cover spouses and children but not extended family.

Allison, whose organization does not advocate a blanket prohibition on earmarks, argued that familial connections to an earmark recipient should not be seen as an automatic disqualifier or ethical red flag. “It doesn’t necessarily mean that the earmark isn’t for a worthy project,” he explained. But without that disclosure, “it does raise the question of whether [a lawmaker] is trying to hide it. When you disclose it up front, at least the public can decide for itself.”