If Republicans lose big in November, one reason will be their tardy response to public outrage over profligate spending. The guilty pleas of former GOP Rep. Duke Cunningham and lobbyist Jack Abramoff prompted demands for reform of the earmarks pork projects members often secure in secret that were prominent in both scandals.
On Thursday, the House did finally pass a rules change that will force sponsors to attach their names to projects. The Senate isn't expected to follow suit, meaning earmark reform there must wait until next year. On the plus side, both houses this month did pass the Federal Transparency Act. It creates a public Internet database that will allow Google-like searches of the $1 trillion in federal grants, contracts and loans. The "shame factor" the bill will heighten is needed, given that earmarks grew tenfold between 1990 and 2005.
As modest as it is, the transparency bill spent much of August in limbo after Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Ted Stevens of Alaska, chief defender of the infamous "Bridge to Nowhere," put a hold on it, using the tradition allowing any senator to secretly block a bill. These games feed the perception of an out-of-touch Congress and demoralize many GOP voters. "Every event I go to, someone complains about overspending and pork," says Rep. Chris Chocola of Indiana, one of the most embattled GOP incumbents. "They still don't think we get it."
Many members simply don't believe the political costs of pork can ever exceed the benefits. Democrats have been largely silent. After all, they get about 45% of them even as a minority. "One man's pork is another man's steak," is how many members dismiss reform.
Congressional appropriators argue that earmarks represent less than 1% of the federal budget and are often worthy projects. But earmarks have a budgetary impact far beyond their dollar cost. "They are a gateway drug on the road to spending addiction," says Republican Sen. Tom Coburn. Many members feel compelled to vote for bloated spending bills, fearing their local projects will be stripped out.
Earmarks have also dramatically expanded lobbying. "Lobbyists go client hunting, telling cities they can virtually guarantee an earmark," says Ron Utt of the Heritage Foundation. In 2005, nearly 4,000 companies or local governments hired lobbyists to pursue earmarks, up from just 1,865 five years ago. Jack Abramoff is a case in point.
Earmarks by the thousands inevitably bring scandals by the dozens. This month has already brought two. The U.S. attorney in New Jersey subpoenaed records from a deal involving Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez and a Hudson County nonprofit that starting in 1994 paid Mr. Menendez a total of $329,353 to rent a building that he owned. At the time, the nonprofit was run by a political ally of Mr. Menendez. Later, the same group was the recipient of millions in federal funding after Mr. Menendez, then in the House, broadened federal grant standards to include that nonprofit.
Meanwhile, Sen. Maria Cantwell, a Democrat from Washington state, helped arrange $11.6 million in federal earmarks in the past year for projects benefiting clients of a lobbyist who is advising her re-election campaign and still owes her between $15,000 and $50,000 from a personal loan. Both senators say they sought the funding because it benefited their states.
Republicans have their own earmark problems. 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."
Sen. Stevens defends the earmark process, claiming "discretionary federal spending isn't out of whack," despite all evidence to the contrary. He admits a lot of the earmarks now being handed out wouldn't have passed constitutional muster before the Great Society, but no one is more tenacious in seeing his state now gets its maximum share. Humoring him has cost Republicans credibility. He has become an icon of earmark excess, starting with the fact that he's given his name to Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport. Earmarks appear to be a family business. Bill Bittner, his brother-in-law, is a D.C. lobbyist who has hauled in dozens of earmarks for his clients. His son, Ben, is the majority leader of the Alaska Senate, and while in office has collected large consulting fees from companies that benefited from some of dad's earmarks.
Last month, federal agents raided the offices of Ben Stevens and a half-dozen other Alaska legislators, investigating ties between them and an oil-services company. Some of the legislators involved even referred to themselves as "the Corrupt Bastards Club." Alaska officials admit the perception of favoritism in local contracts and federal earmarks is embarrassing the state.
Similar embarrassment is spreading to Congress. Staffers are appalled at how members prostitute the institution by scraping the bottom of the pork barrel. Rep. Dan Lungren of California says that "members are now much more mere errand boys for local government and constituents."
Rep. Chocola supports extending the term limits that now apply to all committee chairmen to all members of the Appropriations Committee. "It's clear appropriators see the world differently from all the rest of us," he told me. Term limits would at least limit how much their vision could be warped while serving on Congress's "favor factories." The ban on gifts to members and their staff should also be extended to local governments and universities seeking earmarks.
President Bush could also do more. Republican Sen. Jim DeMint notes that the Congressional Research Service has found that 95% of recent earmarks were slipped into committee reports and not written into law. "These non-legislated earmarks are not legally binding," he says. "President Bush could ignore them. He doesn't need a line-item veto."
The federal government is now an astounding 185 times as big in real terms as it was a century ago. A general sense that Republicans have forgotten why they were sent to Washington is a big reason why only 43% of Republicans approve of Congress in this month's Fox News poll. If Republicans can't better explain how they plan to get a grip on spending, many voters will conclude they both deserve and need a time-out from power.