Jewish World Review Jan. 23, 2006 / 23 Teves 5766
John H. Fund
How to Cure Pork and how big government produced the Abramoff scandal
Mr. Abramoff was a master at deploying his lobbying shop to get his clients earmarks, or spending projects that members of Congress directly request for a specific use or beneficiary. While some earmarks are worthy items that simply didn't make a bureaucrat's priority list, many others are howlers such as Alaska's infamous "bridge to nowhere." Abuses can easily happen, since the number and dollar value of earmarks have quadrupled in the last decade. Many of the 15,000-plus earmarks Congress passed last year were quietly slipped into last-minute conference reports. Members thus had no opportunity to debate, amend or question them. That's how the federal transportation bill finances a $3.5 million horse trail in Virginia and a $50 million indoor rainforest in Iowa.
Last Thursday Vice President Dick Cheney used a speech in New York to decry how earmarks are gumming up national security. "When I was secretary of defense 15 years ago, the Defense Authorization Bill was about 70 pages long," he told the Manhattan Institute. "Today the Defense Authorization Bill is, I believe, close to 900 pages long." He noted that the requirements imposed by Congress can include how many field rations must be ordered for a unit or how many defense jobs are located in a particular congressional district. Mr. Cheney urged Congress to rein in earmarks and give the president meaningful line-item veto authority.
Getting such a veto would require a constitutional amendment and thus is unlikely in the short term, but some earmark reform is now inevitable as reporters dig up more stories of dubious spending. Military contractor Bruce Wilkes was able to lavish illegal gifts on former Rep. Duke Cunningham of California and secure $95 million in contracts in return. 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.
But if Congress moves to demand greater disclosure by lobbyists and make it harder to grant private petitions for pork, let's hope they recognize one of the most glaring loopholes in the lobbying process: Federal, state and local government agencies are exempt from many current restrictions on lobbying.
Take the House and Senate rules that ban gifts to members or their staff over a $50 annual limit. Two top Senate staffers who accompanied Jack Abramoff to the 2001 Super Bowl in Tampa, Fla., were able to do so because they were told the bill was being picked up by one of Mr. Abramoff's Indian tribe clients (in reality a gambling company paid for it). Because tribes are "sovereign" governments, they are exempt not only from the gift ban but also from many campaign-finance limits, including some in the McCain-Feingold bill.
Most local governments don't spend lavishly on gifts, but many are investing in taxpayer-funded lobbying. The number of companies hired to pursue earmarks has doubled since 2000, many of them retained by universities or cities to pursue federal dollars. Now the feeding frenzy has escalated to the point that some lobbyists, including many who used to work on Capitol Hill, are approaching local officials and suggesting they have the juice to get them an earmark, providing the lobbyist gets paid a hefty fee.
In 2004, Culpeper County, Va. (population 40,192), was hoping to build a local sports complex when the local newspaper reported it was "approached by a representative of Alcalde and Fay, a Northern Virginia lobbying group, who expressed optimism that funds for the $3.5 million sports complex could be tied to one or more federal appropriation bills." The lobbying group recommended a $5,000-a-month retainer, for a total of $90,000 over an 18-month contract. As Ron Utt, a former federal budget official now at the Heritage Foundation, points out. "Alcalde & Fay are, for all intents and purposes, selling federal taxpayer money for just 2.6 cents on the dollar. What local government wouldn't consider such an offer from a lobbyist?"
Indeed, many have signed up. The Utah Transit Authority, which provides public transportation in the 41st most densely populated state, spent $1.6 million on federal lobbyists in 2003. Many universities now routinely hit up both their alumni and their local members of Congress for the building fund. The academic pork barrel netted colleges and universities $520 million in 1998, a figure that grew to $2 billion in 2003, including such grants as $1.7 million for the University of Missouri to research the cultivation of shiitake mushrooms and $250,000 for the University of Hawaii to catalog historical records on the state's admission to the Union.
Some universities end up employing or being run by the very people who bring them this largesse. Last month Democratic former senator Dennis DeConcini was given a prestigious appointment as a regent of the University of Arizona. Mr. DeConcini retired from the Senate in 1995 after being tarred as one of the "Keating Five," a group of senators who improperly intervened with federal regulators on behalf of corrupt savings-and-loan owner Charles Keating. Mr. DeConcini then becameno surprisea Washington lobbyist. He now admits he needs to be brought up to speed on education issues. But he had a ready explanation for his appointment: "I used to be very close to the universities. I was able to secure them millions of dollars when I was in the Senate."
The office of Gov. Janet Napolitano, who appointed Mr. DeConcini as a regent, agrees with his assessment. Spokeswoman Jeanine L'Ecuyer told the Arizona State University newspaper that the former senator "was selected for his experience on Capitol Hill, where he helped Arizona universities secure federal funding for research."
Greg Patterson, a Republican former Arizona state legislator, calls the DeConcini appointment outrageous: "Imagine if a former senator was appointed to the board of Boeing and said 'Golly, I don't know much about planes, but when I was in the Senate, I got Boeing a ton of contracts and now I've got this really cool job.' "
Members often privately justify their pursuit of pork by claiming it's a political necessity. Even though gerrymanders guarantee most members safe seats, many still live in fear of having the spending lobbies accuse them of not dragging the bacon home. "We've now sent the message that if you want something out of Washington, come ask for an earmark," says Rep. John Shadegg, a candidate for House Majority Leader. "It's driving spending out of control."
But Rep. Jeff Flake of Arizona, a leading supporter of earmark reform, says it's a myth that members need to bring home the pork to surviveespecially if Congress has a genuine record of accomplishment in other areas. In 2004, a serious primary opponent accused him of not directing enough federal money to his district and won the endorsement of most of his local mayors. "The mayors didn't understand, but the voters sure did," Rep. Flake told me. He won easily.
If Washington is going to be cleaned up, more campaign-finance restrictions and lobbying disclosure will address only the symptoms, not the underlying problem. So long as government grows more powerful, money will find its way to Washington to attempt to influence it. That will bring with it more corruption. "People serious about reducing the role of money in politics should be serious about reducing the role of politics in distributing money," notes columnist George Will. "But those most eager to do the formerliberals, generallyare the least eager to do the latter."
Public outrage is having some effect. Even a master pork-barreler such as Mississippi's Sen. Trent Lott now decries the federal highway bill for funding "museums and county roads" that have no national purpose. Some members are being urged by constituents to go back to the Constitution and ask what in it grants such authority in the first place.
Indeed, Thomas Jefferson recognized the dangers of pork-barrel spending back in 1796 when he wrote James Madison that allowing Congress to spend federal money for local projects would set off "a scene of scramble among the members [for] who can get the most money wasted in their State; and they will always get most who are meanest." While Madison did not adopt Jefferson's purist view, he largely agreed with it. In his last act before leaving the presidency in 1817, Madison vetoed a bill for federal financing of roads, bridges and canals. The man popularly known as "the Father of the Constitution" rejected the view of Congress that its general welfare clause justified the expenditure. He wrote that "such a view of the Constitution would have the effect of giving to Congress a general power of legislation instead of the defined and limited one hitherto understood to belong to them, the terms 'common defense and general welfare' embracing every object and act" imaginable.
Ultimately, the answer to the Jack Abramoff scandals is to combine immediate reforms with the realization that unless the size of government is reduced, even conservatives inevitably get caught up in the care and feeding of the state. Industries that want favors or protection from government will hire the powerful to manipulate the levers of power. Local governments will be similarly motivated to look for free federal money. Abuse and corruption will inevitably follow.
The current scandals in Washington should remind us just how far we have strayed from the vision of limited government the Founders handed down to us. Madison urged those who wanted federal largesse for "county roads" to amend the Constitution to permit it. Not able or willing to go through that arduous process, we have instead so undermined our founding document by degrees that we now find ourselves mired in earmarks and in peril of squandering our birthright for a mess of pottage and pork.
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