This story is not news. It is not surprising in the least - to right or left. Nor is it indicative of anything we don’t already know about Congress as an institution and to a large degree, the elected members who fill out its ranks.
What is surprising is the size and scope of this developing scandal which has about 1/4 of the United States Congress dropping earmarks into a spending bill directed to the clients of one lobbying firm - a company already under investigation by the FBI for funnelling illegal campaign contributions to Pennsylvania congressman John Murtha (D).
CQ Politics has the details:
No matter what the outcome of the federal investigation, PMA’s earmark success illustrates how a well-connected lobbying firm operates on Capitol Hill. And earmark accountability rules imposed by the Democrats in 2007 make it possible to see how extensively PMA worked the Hill for its clients.
In the spending bill managed by Murtha, the fiscal 2008 Defense appropriation, 104 House members got earmarks for projects sought by PMA clients, according to Congressional Quarterly’s analysis of a database constructed by Ashdown’s group.
Those House members, plus a handful of senators, combined to route nearly $300 million in public money to clients of PMA through that one law (PL 110-116).
And when the lawmakers were in need — as they all are to finance their campaigns — PMA came through for them.
According to CQ MoneyLine, the same House members who took responsibility for PMA’s earmarks in that spending bill have, since 2001, accepted a cumulative $1,815,138 in campaign contributions from PMA’s political action committee and employees of the firm.
It should be said up front that there is no evidence - yet - any of these members took illegal contribtions. They aren’t doing anything that almost everyone else is doing. Indeed, this kind of pay for play is rampant around the country from courthouses, to statehouses, to the White House. What it proves is that for all the “reform” that has supposedly taken place in Washington going all the way back to the 1970’s - “sunshine” laws, lobbying reform, campaign finance reform, limiting junkets, etc. - there is still the back room, the wink and a handshake over cocktails, the speech “honorariums” given by lobbying firms at events held in warm, exotic locations, and the whispered agreements outside the rooms where conference committees work to craft the laws of the land.
There is also nothing illegal about earmarks. As I have tried to explain before, one member’s “earmark” that wastes spending is another man’s necessity. Yes, there are bogus examples like the Bridge to Nowhere, and the post office named after the member built in a town of 10 people. No doubt there are roads to nowhere too. But getting rid of the practice would actually be detrimental. Many times, a Congressman will put an earmark in a spending bill because the federal agency being funded refuses to spend money on genuinely worthy projects. Here again, there is a perception gap; what might be a “worthy” project for one district might be seen by someone living in another as waste. The authors of the book “The Wrong Stuff: The Extraordinary Saga of Randy “Duke” Cunningham, The Most Corrupt Congressman Ever Caught” point this out in an excellent explanation of what earmarks are and why they are used:
In truth, there is nothing illegal about earmarks and, as the authors point out in a brilliant chapter on the practice, they can be used for good at times. As an example of earmarks being used for a beneficial purpose, a lone Texas Congressman steered billions of dollars to the Afghan resistance fighting Soviet occupation in the 1980’s. Said Representative Charlie Wilson (whose story was told in the hugely entertaining Charlie Wilson’s War) “There are three branches of the government and you have to explain that to the executive branch every once and a while and earmarks are the best way to do that.” Wilson believed that the Afghan resistance would never have triumphed without earmarks because the CIA would not have spent the money effectively.
Having said that, there is absolutely no doubt the process must be reformed - something the Democrats tried in 2007 but ended up doing a half assed job because their own members balked at reforms that would truly bite. There is a little more transparency but still no debate over measures that can be as expensive as a billion dollars. And then there is the impossible to police practice of members giving preferment to campaign contributors and well heeled lobbyists not to mention the whole, bloody practice has gone beyond reason, beyond necessity, and beyond belief:
Earmarks were a problem going back in the 1980’s. For example, the authors point to the 1987 Transportation bill vetoed by an astonished Ronald Reagan who counted no less than 121 earmarks in the bill. Both the House and Senate – Democrats and Republicans – shrugged off the Gipper’s disapproval and passed the bill over the President’s veto overwhelmingly. In 1991, the number of earmarks in the pork laden Transportation bill had grown to 538; 1850 by 1998; and by 2005 the total number of earmarks reached a mind numbing 6,373 costing an additional $24.2 billion. (Source: Taxpayers for Common Sense).
Newt Gingrich and the Republicans saw the earmark as a ticket to a permanent majority. The Republicans would place newer or more vulnerable members on one of the Appropriations Committees which would give them access to the lobbyists who, in exchange for an earmark, would fill their campaign coffers with cash as well as shower the member with gifts, junkets, and other goodies.
Earmarks were part of the so-called “K-Street Strategy” where lobbyists became enormously influential not only in re-electing Republicans but in crafting and critiquing legislation. It corrupted the Republican party and, with the Democrats having their own “K-Street” connections, has already corrupted them too.
Earmarks are a symptom. It is the whole rotten ediface of governance in America that is corrupt and I don’t know whether it’s because the people we elect are of a mean moral character or the system itself is just too much of a temptation for politicians to pass up the opportunity to enrich themselves. Probably both. Surely this is not the kind of government imagined by Madison. Even Hamilton might have raised an eyebrow at the excesses of self aggrandizing politicians who may come to Washington determined to resist the siren calls of lobbyists and their gift horses only to fall prey in the end to apathy or worse, the belief that “everybody does it” so why should I be a chump?
I have grown cynical since 1979 when I found myself in Washington as a 24 year old sprite, agog at the majesty and towering historical figures with whom I was rubbing shoulders. But the reverence I had for politicians and our system of government back then was misplaced. I see now that the stately buildings, the stirring rhetoric, the passion, the belief in ideas was a mirage, a beautiful facade behind which was the crumbling, rotten ruins of 200 years of hopes, aspirations and bloody sacrifce made irrelevant by hard-eyed, cynical men who exploited people like me and what I believed for their own gain. By the time I left Washington 6 years later, I had been disabused of my boyish naivete, having seen the grubby underside of politics and governing as well as the grasping, conniving nature of so many who weild power, ideally to benefit the people but instead, to protect and enrich a wealthy elite. The education of Rick Moran was complete.
And yet, my cynicism has always been tempered by the realization that they are, after all, human and that the fault was mine for placing they and the government of the nation I love on such a high pedestal. Today, I see things with a little harder edge to my observations. But I still believe that the men and women who represent us can do a much better job while maintaining their integrity. If they can’t help themselves, then laws and rules must be designed to lead them not into temptation - make it so hard for them to exploit their position for personal gain that they either keep their souls or go back to selling used cars or whatever activity their debauched character finds comfortable.
If they are going to act like kids in a candy store when they get to Washington, perhaps it’s time to start treating them like children who need to be constantly taught the right thing to do. It’s apparent that somewhere along the way, most Members of Congress forgot those basic lessons and need remedial instruction.