Yet another controversy involving Congressional earmarks is brewing in Washington. This time around a lobbying firm, the PMA group (raided by the FBI in November), is accused of making fraudulent donations to members of Congress in exchange for federal pork directed toward their clients.

Given mounting news reports of scandal involving earmarks, you’d think Members of Congress would jump at the opportunity to prove they’re clean. You’d be wrong.

Two illuminating pieces of pork legislation were passed by the House yesterday. The first vote, the 2009 Omnibus appropriations bill, churned out the waste we’ve unfortunately become accustomed to – $2,192,000 for grape genetics, $2,673,000 for wood education, and $1,049,000 for Mormon crickets just to name a few.

The second vote, however, threatened to expose the not-so-secret reality that earmarks are often directed towards individuals and organizations in exchange for campaign contributions. Inspired by the allegations against PMA, Congressman Jeff Flake (R-AZ) introduced a resolution to “investigate the relationship between earmark requests already made by Members and the source and timing of past campaign contributions.” Yesterday, a motion to kill the resolution passed 226-182.

Rep. Flake hit the nail on the head in his February 24th New York Times op-ed:

Nothing has illustrated the insidious nature of Congressional pay-to-play better than the PMA Group, a powerhouse lobbying firm that imploded this month after word got out that it was being investigated over campaign contribution indiscretions. Over the past few days we’ve learned that PMA’s clients received nearly $300 million worth of earmarks in one defense appropriations bill. In what is best described as circular fund-raising, millions of those dollars made a return trip to Capitol Hill in the form of contributions to members of Congress

Congress has managed to avoid connecting the pay-to-play dots by looking the other way. This has been easy to do. House rules require members submitting earmark requests to certify that they have no “financial interest” in doing so. But the House ethics manual states: “A contribution to a member’s principal campaign committee or leadership PAC generally would not constitute the type of ‘financial interest’ referred to in the rule.”

If we think we can rely on Ethics Committee guidelines written by our colleagues to shield us from corruption investigations, we are drinking our own bathwater. We have little choice but to decouple earmarks from campaign contributions. This can be most easily done by clarifying that campaign contributions do in fact constitute “financial interest.” I’ve introduced a House resolution to do just that.

This resolution was killed yesterday, and the pork filled Omnibus, which contains at least eight earmarks for PMA clients, was passed. How far the majority leadership has come since it pledged “to make this the most honest, ethical and open Congress in history.”