This was on an effort to table (kill) a motion that would have allowed the Senate to debate prohibiting the practice of senators inserting funds in bills in exchange for vote commitments by other senators. The funds or “earmarks” that are inserted are grants or awards which Congress mandates that a federal department make. These grants or awards are typically inserted into spending bills at the request of individual senators.
The motion to allow Senate debate of the proposal was made by Sen. DeMint (R-SC) during the consideration of major health care legislation. The consideration of that legislation was very heated. There were press reports suggesting that support for the legislation was given by certain Democratic senators in return for the insertion of special funding in the bill that was favorable to their states.
DeMint said that, although he wanted “to be careful not to suggest wrongdoing by any senator, there has been growing public concern that earmarks were used to buy votes for this legislation. It has been argued by some that this practice is acceptable because it is necessary to get things done in the Senate. I reject that argument, and I urge my colleagues to put an end to business as usual here in the Senate.” He noted that The House of Representatives “has a rule prohibiting the use of earmarks to buy votes for legislation. If we were in the House considering this bill, vote trading would be a direct violation of the ethics rules. Unfortunately, a vote-trading rule does not exist in the Senate.”
DeMint noted that the adoption of his proposed rule “will not, unfortunately, apply to the earmarks in this (health care bill and) . . . will not slow down the health care bill in any way. He argued that: “The only reason for senators to oppose (the motion to allow a vote on his proposal) is if they want to use earmarks to buy votes for legislation. It is that simple. If you support business as usual, then oppose this motion. But if you want to start to clean this place up and bring some integrity back to the legislative process, then please support the motion.”
Sen. Baucus (D-MT), who was among those leading the support for the health care legislation, opposed the motion and favored killing it. He said that the proposal offered by Sen. DeMint “may sound good in theory, but it has many flaws . . . .” If you think the Senate is tied up in knots now, if this were in effect, the current situation would pale in comparison to what the effect of this amendment would be. The amendment is written in a way to become an endless source of delay. Senators could make one point of order after another under this provision, pointing to different provisions or indicting the integrity of different senators.
Baucus also argued: “The amendment provides no way for determining how to rule on (it and a ruling) . . . cannot be (made) without solid guidance. Points of order (such as the ones that would be made under the rule DeMint proposed) make the most sense when they are based on objective criteria. The (proposal) . . . would ask the Chair and the Parliamentarian to sort through purely subjective concepts such as the basis for a senator's vote or the intent behind inclusion of a provision . . . .” Baucus concluded his argument in favor of tabling the motion by saying that the DeMint proposal “is totally unworkable as a practical matter. . .”
The vote to kill the motion was 53-46. All fifty-three “aye” votes were cast by Democrats. Seven other Democrats joined all thirty-nine Republicans present and voted “nay”. As a result, the Senate effectively decided not to impose an explicit prohibition on the practice of a senator inserting funds in a bill in exchange for a commitment by another senator to vote for the bill.