This vote was on an amendment by Tom Coburn, R-Okla., that would create a special congressional committee to investigate a member’s pet project (known as an “earmark”) that was altered after both chambers of Congress passed it. Critics say this had the effect of sending a version of legislation to the president that Congress did not in fact approve. Just prior to Coburn’s amendment, another amendment Coburn opposed was adopted that would call for a Justice Department investigation. The amendment was offered to a bill that would make technical corrections and some programmatic changes (such as earmarks) to the 2005 surface transportation law.
The earmark in question drew attention because the version that was passed by the House and Senate was not the version that was sent to the White House for President Bush’s signature. Specifically, the version both chambers passed contained a $10 million earmark for expanding Interstate 75 near Fort Myers, Fla. But the version that reached the White House directed those funds to a specific interchange at Coconut Road. Critics of the earmark say this was done by a House staff member after the measure was passed by both chambers of Congress in order to benefit a developer in Florida. This developer, who allegedly had ties to a project near the interchange, helped raise $40,000 for Alaska Republican Don Young’s re-election campaign. At the time, Young was chairman of the committee that drafted the bill that contained the earmark.
Mel Martinez, R-Fla., who sponsored the amendment with Coburn, said the practice was certainly “questionable” but that was probably not criminal. Therefore, he said it was more proper for Congress to investigate itself rather than to involve the Justice Department.
“I do not know if there is any criminal wrongdoing that has taken place. These are congressional actions which are, frankly, in many ways reprehensible in my view but which may not rise to criminality,” Martinez said.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said a congressional investigation into the conduct of a member of the House should not be ordered by the Senate.
“I think we get ourselves into a problem we should not, constitutionally or morally, by having the House tell us what we should do as far as our own Senators. We should not be telling them what they should be doing regarding House Members. Our Constitution does not provide the Senate with authority to direct a House committee to initiate any kind of action like that,” Reid said.
By a vote of 49 Yes & 43 No, the amendment was rejected. Though more voted yes than no, in this instance a 60-vote majority was required for passage. All but two Republicans present voted for the amendment (Olympia Snowe of Maine and George Voinovich of Ohio). Of Democrats present, six voted for the amendment and 39 voted against it (including the most progressive members). The end result is that the measure went forward without language that would have ordered a congressional investigation into an earmark that was changed after both chambers passed it. (Instead, the Senate endorsed another amendment that ordered the Justice Department to investigate the matter.)