In a sign of just how deeply entrenched Congress's pork barrel culture has become, Democrats on Capitol Hill are delaying sending President Bush an ethics bill they've already passed that purports to reform lobbyist reporting and earmarks. The reason? They're afraid Mr. Bush will veto the bill, which makes only cosmetic changes on the earmark process, gutting the reforms Congress voted earlier this year. The White House has called what remains "worthless."
"We've been waiting for whether or not they would veto the bill before we sent it out," Jim Manley, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, told Politico.com. "We want a better handle on what the White House plans to do. We'll send it when we're ready."
Why the game of chicken? Earmarks are now a major industry on Capitol Hill, accounting, for example, for nearly 10% of the last transportation bill. As Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma points out, they also serve as a "gateway drug" used to buy votes for much bigger-ticket spending bills like the 2003 Medicare prescription-drug entitlement.
Pretending that the earmark process will be made transparent and accountable as a result of a phony ethics bill is vital to Congress's effort to convince voters they've sobered up on spending. Among other travesties, the new ethics bill strips out previously agreed-upon language barring members from trading earmarks for votes, and in the Senate vests none other than Majority Leader Reid with the power to determine if an item is subject to earmark-disclosure rules.
Concealing just how the pork-barrel culture works is important to congressmen in both parties, because the process can't really be defended on the merits. Nothing illustrates that better than the exchange that took place just before Congress broke for its August recess between Democratic Rep. John Murtha, the overlord of spending on the House Appropriations Committee, and GOP Rep. John Campbell, a antipork reformer from California.
Mr. Campbell, a certified accountant, rose to challenge a $2 million earmark for a "paint shield" being developed by the Sherwin-Williams Co. in Cleveland. Since the actual sponsor of the earmark, Rep. Stephanie Tubbs-Jones, chose not to defend her handiwork, Mr. Murtha took up the cudgel on her behalf. Mr. Campbell simply wanted to know if the Pentagon had asked for the paint shield, since the rationale for the spending was that it would "protect people against microbial threats."
Mr. Murtha imperiously assured Mr. Campbell that the shield was "a very worthwhile project," and that "I'm sure the military is interested in this kind of research."
Mr. Campbell persisted and asked if, "in fact, the military has asked for this kind of technology?" When Mr. Murtha was silent, Mr. Campbell said, "I guess the answer to that is no."
He then proceeded to ask if any research had been done to show that the "paint shield" would actually be effective. An impatient Mr. Murtha replied that "we look at every [earmark]. We ask the members to vet them. Our staff vets them. We go over every single earmark." But he could offer no evidence of the effectiveness of the shield beyond saying that Sherwin-Williams was "a very qualified contractor."
When asked if other paint companies working on a similar product had been given the opportunity to bid on the research, Mr. Murtha claimed in exasperation that "every one of these earmarks [is] competitively granted under the regulations of the Defense Department," and that for their $2 million outlay, the taxpayers would own the fruits of whatever Sherwin-Williams came up with in its lab.
Mr. Campbell explained that the whole point of an earmark is that it bypasses normal competitive bidding and guarantees the recipient doesn't have to compete for federal money. In addition, taxpayers are rarely, if ever, given ownership of any part of the research they pay for, since companies and universities routinely seek earmarks so they can get the government to foot the bill for their basic research.
The Campbell-Murtha exchange vividly illustrates why many Americans would be upset if the earmark process were ever opened up to serious scrutiny. Members of both parties are complicit in keeping the game going and trying to foist a fake reform bill off on President Bush. Only 17 senators tried to block passage of the bill. Mr. Campbell won only 91 votes, less than a quarter of the House, for his amendment to strike the paint shield.
The Club for Growth has just issued a "RePORK card" grading every House member on 50 amendments to kill outrageous pork projects this year. The results are illuminating. The Pork Hall of Shame those who voted against all 50 reform amendments totaled 105 81 Democrats and 24 Republicans. The average GOP score was 43%, the average Democratic score only 2%. Only one Democrat voted against pork more than a fifth of the time Rep. Jim Cooper of Tennessee, who racked up a 98% antipork score and is unlikely to be invited to dinner with any Appropriations Committee chairmen anytime soon.
The best way to change Congress's culture would be for Mr. Bush to reject the faux reform bill. Nothing would more anger the spending barons of Congress or highlight just how the budget process has become perverted. Even if Congress were to override Mr. Bush's veto, the debate would be tremendously educational for voters.
Already, a knowledge of the excesses of earmarks is starting to seep into the popular culture. GOP Sen. Ted Stevens, the so-called King of Pork, recently suffered the humiliation of seeing FBI agents raid his Alaskan home in search of evidence in an earmark-corruption scandal. He has become semi-famous as the defender of such earmark outrages as the "Bridge to Nowhere."
Last week comedian Drew Carey took a jab at Mr. Stevens while he explained his new duties as the host of the game show "The Price is Right." Mr. Carey told NBC's "Today" show that he had warmed to the idea of hosting the show: "You're giving away prizes all day and making everybody happy. . . . You couldn't do better." But then he explained the best part of the job: "And it's not even your money. You're giving away money and getting credit for it. I feel like a congressman. I'm like the junior Ted Stevens."
Members of Congress like to think of themselves in pursuing the national interest in a dignified manner. Exposing how earmarks really work would make maintaining that image all the more difficult. Members would much prefer to keep the game show going and keep the details of who foots the bill hidden behind the curtain.