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Something fishy

Beltway buzz | Playing favorites and other tricks of the political trade in the 110th's first 100 hours

Issue: "Faith-based campaigning," Jan. 27, 2007

True to Speaker Nancy Pelosi's 100-hour promise, the U.S. House passed legislation last week to raise the minimum wage from $5.15 to $7.25 an hour.

The one exception? American Samoa, a Pacific outpost of the American tuna industry and the only U.S. territory currently exempt from the new federal minimum wage.

Non-voting Democrat Eni Faleomavaega, who represents the Pacific island territories, argued that a federal increase could "devastate the local economy," since Starkist and Chicken of the Sea together employ nearly 75 percent of the Samoan work force.

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But the exemption kindled accusations of favoritism when Republicans learned that Del Monte Foods Co., owner of Starkist, has corporate headquarters in Pelosi's home district of San Francisco.

The issue prompted a wry exchange between Patrick McHenry (R-N.C.) and acting House chair Barney Frank (D-Mass.) during floor debate about stem-cell research the next day.

"Mr. Speaker, inquiry of the contents of this legislation," said McHenry. "Would it be appropriate to offer an amendment at this time exempting American Samoa, just as it was from the minimum wage bill?"

"The gentleman will suspend," Frank demanded.

By the end of the week, Pelosi reversed her position, instructing the Education and Labor Committee to include American Samoa in the final version of the legislation.

Reforming Harry Reid

When House Democrats proclaimed a new era of congressional integrity, following the overwhelming approval (430-1) of a tough ethics reform package, they may have forgotten about their own worst enemy-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).

The House version of the ethics bill requires that "earmarks," the pet spending projects inserted into legislation, be fully disclosed, along with the name of the sponsoring member.

But Senate Democrats offered a weaker version of the bill, mandating disclosure only for earmarks that appear in legislation-not the accompanying reports-thus ignoring up to 95 percent of the 12,852 earmarks in the last Congress.

When Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) introduced the exact language of the House bill as an amendment to the Senate version, Reid rushed to kill the motion, despite public sponsorship of the language by Speaker Pelosi.

Reid lost the vote 51-46, when nine Democrats (including presidential hopeful Barack Obama) sided against their leader. Seven Republicans, including former Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.), voted with Reid, who later agreed to adopt a slightly modified version of the DeMint language.

Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) has since introduced the "Reid Amendment," which would prevent senators from requesting earmarks that would financially benefit themselves, staffers, or family members.

His amendment follows the discovery that Reid's son-in-law and four sons have all worked as lobbyists or lawyers for special interests, and that earmarks have sent millions of federal dollars to the University of Nevada at Reno while Reid's son-in-law was a paid lobbyist for the university.

Has the GOP learned anything?

As the new minority party scrambles to regroup, House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) has decided to strip Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) of his coveted seat on the House Judiciary Committee, sending a powerful and punitive message to any who challenge the policies-or the spending habits-of the Republican leadership.

According to the official party line, many House Republicans are losing committee posts because of the midterm elections, when the GOP lost 31 House seats and 93 committee seats. But Flake outranked six Republicans who remain on the Judiciary Committee following the Republican Steering Committee decisions last week. "That's pretty easy math," Flake said. He attributes his demotion to recent conflict with GOP leadership on immigration reform and to his habit of drawing public attention to Republican pork projects.

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