Jewish World Review Jan. 9, 2006 / 9 Teves 5766
John H. Fund
Marks for Sharks: The Abramoff scandal may sink congressional Republicans if they don't get serious about spending reforms
Many Republicans have forgotten that as government grows, its increased power to grant favors or inflict pain attracts more people who would abuse the system. Sen. John McCain once told me that "the best long-term answer to corruption is a smaller government." Indeed, disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff observed a decade ago, "More money available from government is blood in the water for sharks." He proved to be one hungry shark.
If the GOP response to the Abramoff scandal is merely to enact "lobbying reforms," the party will skirt the problem that underlies the corruption: runaway spending. "The 2001-2005 period marks the transformation of the Republican party from its traditional role as a win-or-lose guardian of limited government to that of a majority government party just as comfortable with big government as the Democrats, only with different spending priorities," says Chris DeMuth, president of the American Enterprise Institute.
That's dangerous ground, given that the GOP base still believes in smaller government. Mr. Abramoff steered campaign cash to and hired staffers from members of both parties. But in 1994, after 350 members of both parties had been tarred by the House bank scandal, it was Republicans who were able to exploit it because Democrats controlled Congress.
Nothing better illustrates the meltdown in spending restraint than earmarking, the process by which members secure special pork projects such as Alaska's infamous $223 million "bridge to nowhere." Pork is an inevitable product of political compromise, but earmarks are a particularly corrupt form. They are often last-minute additions to conference reports that were never considered in the original bills passed by either the House or Senate. They can thus avoid competitive bidding, performance standards or even disclosure of the direct recipient.
In 1998, Congress approved 1,850 earmarks just for transportation projects. Last year's transportation bill contained 6,371. Earmarks have become the corrupt currency by which bills like the ruinously expensive prescription drug entitlement are bought vote by vote. They inevitably result in some lower-priority projects being funded first, with potentially disastrous results. In Louisiana, the Army Corps of Engineers spent $1.9 billion between 2000 and 2005, more than 80% of which was earmarked. Less than 4% of the total was spent on protecting levees, while over a third of the money went to building a new lock on an underused canal. Then along came Hurricane Katrina.
Earmarks have created their own parasitic specialized lobbying industry. "They go client hunting, telling cities or counties they can virtually guarantee an earmark," says Ron Utt, a former federal budget official now at the Heritage Foundation. In 2004, 3,521 companies or local governments hired lobbyists to pursue earmarks, up from just 1,865 four years earlier. A top White House aide told me that "there's need for lubrication of the legislative process, but it's gotten out of control."
Earmarks are at the heart of the scandals surrounding Mr. Abramoff and Duke Cunningham, the former GOP congressman who admitted to taking $2.4 million in bribes in exchange for earmarks. Military contractor Brian Wilkes not only lavished gifts on Mr. Cunningham but spent $1.1 million on lobbying others. The payoff: at least $95 million in government contracts. The Copley News Service reported that "Wilkes made no bones about where his money was coming from. His jet-black Hummer bore a license plate reading MIPR MEa reference to Military Interdepartmental Purchase Requests," the means by which his firm got paid.
For his part, Mr. Abramoff bragged that appropriations committees were "earmark favor factories." His associate Tony Rudy e-mailed him asking if an Indian tribe client could pay for a hunting trip for Congressional staffers as a "thank you . . . for the approps we got." Other lobbyists have bosom-buddy relationships with key appropriators. The San Diego Union-Tribune reports that House Appropriations chairman Jerry Lewis has steered hundreds of millions in federal funds to clients of lobbyist Bill Lowery, a former congressman who is so close to Mr. Lewis that they have exchanged two key staff members, "making their offices so intermingled that they seem to be extensions of each other."
Many congressional relatives earn a lucrative living as lobbyists for earmarks, including the brother of Rep. Jack Murtha (D., Pa.), the brother-in-law of Senate Appropriations Committee chairman Ted Stevens (R., Alaska) and the son of David Obey of Wisconsin, the ranking Democrat on House Appropriations.
Democrats vie with Republicans in priming the pork barrel, but some now see reform trumping pork politically. Several want to make sure that copies of bills are available 24 hours before a vote and limit endless roll-call votes so promises of earmarks can't as easily be used to bribe members.
Republicans face being outflanked if they don't get ahead of the earmark scandal. Rep. Jeff Flake of Arizona wants all earmarks to be subject to debate and amendment. Others want a limit on how much local governments can use taxpayer dollars to lobby for still more federal dollars. Appropriations committee leaders could be required to stay within overall spending ceilings or forfeit their posts.
Sens. Tom Coburn and John McCain now plan to challenge every hidden earmark. "If we aren't told who is asking for it, who benefits and its justification, we'll move to strike it," Mr. Coburn told me. He expects many earmarks to be quietly withdrawn rather than face such scrutiny.
Rep. Paul Kanjorski, a Pennsylvania Democrat, once defended earmarks by saying bureaucrats can "prostitute the language" of the bills Congress writes so that "the normal process doesn't work." But now that earmarks are normal in Congress, they are prostituting the entire institution. Post-Abramoff, the local political benefits of bringing home pork will shrink in the harsh national spotlight that is about to shine on earmarks.
The federal government is now 250 times as big in real terms as it was a century ago. If Republicans don't use Mr. DeLay's departure to restore their limited-government credentials, they will see their own voters rebel.
Every weekday JewishWorldReview.com publishes what many in Washington and in the media consider "must reading." Sign up for the daily JWR update. It's free. Just click here.
Comment on this column by clicking here.
Comment on this column by clicking here.