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House Dems vow to ban earmarks to for-profit companies

WASHINGTON - House Democratic leaders announced Wednesday that they will ban the much-criticized practice of using annual spending bills to direct pet projects to companies that often return the favor with campaign contributions.

Rep. David Obey (D-Wis.), Appropriations Committee chairman, told reporters he hopes the step will mean 1,000 fewer earmarks and will break the linkage between campaign contributions and earmarks that has sparked criticism and resulted in ethics probes of several lawmakers.

But Senate Appropriations panel chair Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), a long-standing defender of earmarking, issued a tartly worded response defending the current system and calling Obey's move "quizzical."

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.

Republicans, meanwhile, are weighing giving up earmarks altogether in an appeal to voters frustrated with Washington's free-spending ways.

At issue in the new edict are earmarks aimed at for-profit entities. Many such companies hire lobbyists to navigate the process, and it's common for both company executives and the lobbyist to donate to lawmakers who sponsor their earmarks.

Congressional watchdogs say the practice has fueled an unhealthy pay-to-play culture.

"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.

Rep. Steve Israel (D-Huntington), an Appropriations Committee member who last year stopped applying for for-profit earmarks to avoid the appearance of conflicts, Wednesday praised the Democrats' ban.

The move, Israel said, will "reduce the number of earmarks overall, while not putting the future of important nonprofit and local government programs at risk." With Tom Brune

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