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An executive for the Sierra Nevada Corp., a defense contractor based in Nevada, wanted to know why he should contribute $20,000 to Rep. Peter Visclosky, an Indiana Democrat. A colleague replied that Sierra Nevada was working with PMA, a Washington, D.C.-based lobbying firm, to curry favor with Visclosky, a key member of the subcommittee that funded defense projects.

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"That's what each of the companies working with PMA and Visclosky have been asked to contribute," explained the second official. "He has been a good supporter of SNC. We have gotten over 10M in adds from him." ("Adds" refers to earmarks, special amendments filed by a single legislator that awards contracts to a specific firm with no competitive bidding.)

"Bribe" is a hard term to define legally. But we know a payoff when we see one. And that e-mail exchange could not have been clearer: Sierra Nevada delivers for Visclosky because Visclosky delivers for Sierra Nevada. And yet the House Ethics Committee recently cleared Visclosky -- and six other lawmakers who had similar dealings with PMA clients -- of any ethical wrongdoing.

Here's what they said: "The Standards Committee (the panel's official name) found no evidence that members or their official staff considered campaign contributions as a factor when requesting earmarks."

No evidence? The evidence of collusion was slapping them in the face. Yet the committee chose the narrowest possible standard of proof: If there's no smoking gun, no direct and specific record of a quid pro quo, then cash-for-clout transactions are entirely proper.

In the past, ethics panels have denounced the "appearance" of impropriety, even when the letter of the law has not been breached. But that standard has apparently now been jettisoned. Leave the money on the dresser, honey. Just don't ask for a receipt.

Full disclosure: We have many friends and relatives who are lobbyists. It's an honorable profession, and campaign contributions are a legitimate expression of free speech. But there should be reasonable limits on how campaign cash affects public policy, and the House Ethics Committee has just made those limits looser, not tighter. The door to greater abuse of the system has been wrenched wide open.

"This will embolden members," Rep. Jeff Flake, an ardent foe of earmarks, told the New York Times. "In essence, unless you're caught on the phone with a lobbyist saying, 'Contribute or else you don't get an earmark,' then you're fine. That's the clear message here."

That message is particularly untimely because the Supreme Court ruled last January that corporations could spend their own money directly on campaign advertising. As a result, government contractors like Sierra Nevada are freer than ever to buy influence in the political marketplace.

It's also untimely because President Obama campaigned heavily against earmarks and vowed to curb their impact. But the administration has not said a word about the ruling that gutted House ethics rules. And Obama's goal of reducing the role of earmarks remains largely unmet. In the last fiscal year, Congress spent $15.9 billion on special-interest projects, up from $15.6 billion the previous year.

Why should we care? That amount spent on earmarks accounts for less than 2 percent of the federal budget. But the issue is important for at least four reasons. First, that's the taxpayer's money Congress is throwing around. As the president himself said last year, "On occasion, earmarks have been used as a vehicle for waste, and fraud, and abuse." And "the context of a tight budget" makes that waste even more costly.

Second, the earmark system distorts national priorities and violates principles of fairness. As Ryan Alexander, president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, put it, "Powerful lawmakers are hoarding cash for their districts while the rest of the Congress fights for table scraps."

Third, appearances do matter. Earmarks reek of corruption even if they do not violate bribery statutes. Just because a practice is technically legal does not make it right or ethical.

Most important, confidence in government has plummeted. Americans believe that Washington rewards power and money while ignoring the interests of ordinary people, and the earmark system is a visible symbol of their disillusionment. Obama himself has talked about "the need for further reforms to ensure that the budget process inspires trust and confidence instead of cynicism."

He's right about that. But the House Ethics Committee, run by the president's own party, has taken a step back, not forward. They have encouraged the triumph of cynicism over confidence when that's the last thing we need.

Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by e-mail at stevecokie@gmail.com.

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