Senator: Incoming Majority Leader Harry Reid has pledged to reform the practice of earmarking funds, saying lawmakers need to be more transparent. (AP / November 13, 2006)

WASHINGTON — Incoming Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid vows to make reform of congressional earmarks a priority of his tenure, arguing that members need to be more transparent when they load pet projects for their districts into federal spending bills.

But last year's huge $286-billion federal transportation bill included a little-noticed slice of pork pushed by Reid that provided benefits not only for the casino town of Laughlin, Nev., but also, possibly, for the senator himself.

Reid called funding for construction of a bridge over the Colorado River, among other projects, "incredibly good news for Nevada" in a news release after passage of the 2005 transportation bill. He didn't mention, though, that just across the river in Arizona, he owns 160 acres of land several miles from proposed bridge sites and that the bridge could add value to his real estate investment.

Reid denies any personal financial interest in his efforts to secure $18 million for a new span connecting Laughlin with Bullhead City, Ariz.

"Sen. Reid's support for the bridge had absolutely nothing to do with property he owns," said Rebecca Kirszner, Reid's communications director. "Sen. Reid supported this project as part of his continuing efforts to move Nevada forward."

But some Bullhead City property owners and local officials say a new bridge will undoubtedly hike land values in an already-booming commuter town, where speculators are snapping up undeveloped land for housing developments and other projects. Experts on congressional spending say Reid's earmark provides yet another sign of the need for reform.

"It's a really bad idea for lawmakers to earmark projects when they have a financial interest that could in any way be affected by it," said Norman Ornstein, coauthor of "The Broken Branch" a recent book that examines earmarking and other practices.

Ornstein said he did not have enough information to fully evaluate the Reid deal. But, he said, "we already have too many examples — including a number of Southern California representatives — who are very directly using this process to enrich themselves."

Said Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a nonpartisan watchdog that tracks congressional spending, "Unwittingly, the taxpayer may have helped inflate the value" of Reid's property.

Earmarking allows congressional leaders, committee chairs and other insiders to insert narrowly targeted spending orders into pending legislation without going through the normal budget review process. Members of both parties defend earmarking as a way for Congress to get attention for local concerns when executive-branch agencies are unresponsive.

Earmarking was at the heart of the case against former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R-Rancho Santa Fe), now in prison for using his congressional seat to secure federal funding for individuals who provided him personal benefits. It was also the basis for much of the wealth amassed by criminal lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who referred to the appropriations committee as "the favor factory."

Reform has been difficult to achieve in part, critics say, because leaders of both parties encourage earmarking to build popularity at home and power among fellow Congress members.

Reid is not the only powerful member known to use the practice. Incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a former appropriations panel member, has used earmarks prodigiously.

The minority leader of the new Senate, Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), is an active earmarker, as is current Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), who last year secured funding for a highway interchange near property he owned outside Chicago. (He too has claimed there is no connection between his earmarks and personal land holdings.)

Last week, when Reid's status rose as Democrats took control of the Senate after the midterm election, the senator promised, like Pelosi, to make earmark reform a top priority when party members caucused.

"With Democrats running Congress, we are in a much better position to achieve real transparency and openness," said Kirszner.

In earlier years, Reid has boldly claimed credit for getting earmarks for his constituents. Last year, he boasted of securing $300 million in earmarks in the transportation bill.

When pressed about his position on earmarks in an interview on public television in January, Reid acknowledged abuses, but added: "There's nothing basically wrong with earmarks. They've been going on since we were a country."

Actually, earmarks have skyrocketed in recent years, from 1,439 in 1995 to 15,268 last year, according to a Senate estimate.