WASHINGTON -- Almost half of the special-interest ''pork" projects targeted in the Senate's highly touted lobbying-reform bill could still be slipped quietly into spending bills without public scrutiny, because of a glaring loophole in the bill's language, according to analyses by The Boston Globe and budget watchdog groups.
The package, passed last week as a way of curbing the influence of high-powered lobbyists such as the disgraced Jack Abramoff, is meant to control the spiraling number of earmarks -- local projects designed to help a specific industry -- that are often put into bills with no public debate.
The measure would not ban such projects, but it would require lawmakers to disclose any earmarks at least 24 hours before debate begins.
But because the lobbying bill defines earmarks as only non-federal projects, at least 5,283 of the 12,852 earmarks in the 2006 spending bills alone would have been exempt from the rules. This is because the earmarks were funded through federal agencies, according to Taxpayers for Common Sense, a nonpartisan citizens group.
Earmarks in the arms spending bill, for example, would not be identified for public scrutiny and congressional debate, meaning that the projects inserted by former Representative Randy ''Duke" Cunningham of California, who is incarcerated for accepting bribes in exchange for favors for arms-related companies, would not have been exposed, said Keith Ashdown, the group's vice president for policy.
The legislation gives the public the false impression that the problem has been solved, Ashdown said, but in fact, it retains ''Washington's pay-to-play political culture."
''Taxpayers deserve more than a limited debate over lobby reform and earmarks," he said.
The Congressional Research Service put a $64 billion price tag on earmarks in the spending bills for fiscal year 2006.
Government watchdog groups such as Taxpayers for Common Sense, as well as the Coalition Against Government Waste, which publishes a ''Pig Book" every year detailing special interest projects -- known to critics as ''pork." The groups use a more restrictive standard, and put the price at about $27 billion.
The lobbying bill, which is going before the House this week, is meant to weed out the more egregious items, such as bike trails, specialized museums, and the so-called ''Bridge to Nowhere" secured by Alaska lawmakers for their state.
But by limiting the disclosure requirements only to nonfederal earmarks, the bill ''doesn't attack some of the most wasteful programs," said David Williams of the Coalition Against Government Waste.
The derided earmark to direct federal money to support a mall with a Hooters restaurant in Louisiana would not be considered an earmark subject to disclosure rules in the new bill. The Hooters provision was discovered after a congressman quietly inserted it into the 2003 energy bill, and it was later removed. But it was later slipped into a tax bill and became law anyway.
Even non-federal provisions could evade the proposed new rules if lobbyists and lawmakers found ways to convert them to federal provisions -- for example, if an earmark for a specific project were routed through a federal agency rather than sent directly to a district.
Supporters of the lobbying reform measure acknowledge that the bill is imperfect, but said they needed to find a compromise that would gain majority support.
Senator Trent Lott, Republican of Mississippi, who helped write the bill, said it had been designed to give lawmakers a way to ''take a rifle shot at bad projects," rather than to eliminate earmarks entirely and to frustrate members' ability to serve their constituents.
''We may do more there," said Lott. ''We all acknowledge this is not a perfect bill. But it had a lot of good stuff in it. It's not weak at all."
Lott added that increased disclosure of earmarks' sponsors will have a ''dampening effect" on the number of such projects that are put into spending measures.
''Just disclosure will reduce numbers some, because some of these things look so bad," Lott said. ''I never will flinch from defending a water-diversion project that will keep people from flooding. But to study the sex lives of Mississippi Delta catfish is a little funny."
Senator Joseph I. Lieberman, Democrat of Connecticut, also acknowledged that the measure falls short in addressing the problems that have emerged surrounding earmarks. But he voted for the bill anyway, and said he intends to work with his colleagues to come back to the issue later this year.
''We got our foot in the door here at reform on earmarks, and we'll come back and try it more fully on some other vehicle," Lieberman said.
A group of fiscal conservatives in the House is addressing the issue this weekend, with the goal of completing a House version of the lobbying bill this week. The group is seeking a broader mechanism for identifying and challenging earmarks.
The House members want to identify the sponsor of all earmarks, and allow any earmark to be challenged on the House floor. A majority vote would remove an earmark from a spending bill.
But senior members of the House Appropriations Committee are fiercely resisting their efforts, said Representative Jeff Flake, a leading critic of earmarks. ''It's difficult. You're taking away people's power," said Flake, an Arizona Republican. ''The power to reward your constituents, your friends, and your donors is pretty darn strong."
While lawmakers frequently complain about wasteful projects, they also proudly announce projects they were able to secure for their own districts, such as new bridges and water projects. And Congress is not likely to give up that perk easily, said Brian Riedl, a budget analyst with the conservative Heritage Foundation.
''Congress has no incentive to rein in pork, because pork helps lawmakers get campaign contributions and get re-elected," Riedl said. ''It is entirely predictable that Congress would create the illusion of reform while retaining the system that allows them to sell government grants for campaign contributions."
© 2006 Boston Globe