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January 24, 2006

It's The Earmarks Stupid!

-- by Gary Boatwright

Campaign Finance Reform is the hot reform issue du jour. Oversight of travel, meals and free trips on corporate jets have all been mentioned in passing. The elephant in the living room that neither political party has hardly mentioned is earmarking. CREW (Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington) has a Knight-Ridder article that has a short and sweet description of earmarking that suggests earmarking is the biggest problem:

Earmarking allows members of Congress to set aside money for specific projects in legislation without review by committees. The practice has ballooned in recent years: In 1998 the 13 appropriations bills contained 2,000 earmarks worth $10.6 billion, while in 2005 there were more than 15,500 earmarks that cost taxpayers $32.7 billion, according to Taxpayers for Common Sense, a nonpartisan fiscal watchdog group.

"There are thousands of quid pro quos that occur daily in the halls of Congress," said Keith Ashdown of Taxpayers for Common Sense. "Earmarking is the quo. It's what lawmakers can offer to lobbyists in exchange for political contributions and whatever else. It's part of the puzzle."

Ashdown recommends a 50 percent cut in earmarks and greater transparency for the earmarks that remain, such as requiring their placement in bills before they go into House-Senate conferences, which typically are closed to the public.

A 50 percent cut in earmarks sounds like a dramatic improvement. That means Congress would only be dishing out 7,250 earmarks worth a little over $16 billion. Is that what we are looking for when we're discussing reforming the culture of corruption? Why are anonymous earmarks tacked onto legislation in the dead of night an acceptable procedure at all? Why is it acceptable to allow even 100 anonymous earmarks per year?

Query: If lobbyists and their clients could not get rewarded for their efforts with multi-million dollar and hundred million dollar earmarks, what would happen to the culture of corruption?

Consider Sirota’s description of the problem:

No matter where you look in politics you can see this phenomenon, right up in your face. We can see it in the two parties' competing lobbying/ethics "reform" packages - both of which do not attack the real problem of elections being financed by corporate cash. That's by design - because to attack the real problem with public financing of elections would be to actually give the public - and not Corporate America - control over the political process.

We see the same thing on many major economic issues like bankruptcy, "free" trade, energy policy, health care and more. These are the bread-and-butter economic issues where the public consistently tells pollsters it wants radically different policies than comes from their government. Yet, politicians and the media dishonestly portray only a narrow set of policies in these areas as "mainstream," "centrist," or "politically possible” making sure the overall debate and realm of possible outcomes is narrowed to the point where votes don't really have to be bought, because whatever final result is already guaranteed to further enrich the powers that be.

This debate narrowing is really what lobbyists are masters of. They provide the talking points, justifications, background research and propaganda to both sides of a debate to make sure that politically taboo subjects (aka. the concerns of ordinary Americans) aren't really ever seriously considered in a debate over an issue. Lawmakers are happy to regurgitate the nonsense because they know that when they do, they will be rewarded like little puppies with a treat - namely, a campaign contribution.

hmmmmm. Mainstream. Centrist. Politically possible. Where have I heard those phrases before? They sound so familiar. It’s right on the tip of my tongue. Is campaign finance reform a sufficient reform or merely a necessary first step? Without the payoff of lucrative anonymous earmarks, would corporate cash continue to pour into our electoral process?

Of course GOP spinmeisters are all trying to pretend that corruption is a bi-partisan issue. For example, Mary Maitlin on Meet The Press

RUSSERT: Ten years later, nearly 14,000 specific earmarked projects by individuals congressmen and senators, $27 billion dollars. Republicans control both houses of Congress.

MS. MATALIN: They control both houses, but they’re not the only earmark appropriators.

At the risk of being too objective, is it remotely possible that earmarks are the reason Bush and the GOP have been so successful at picking off just enough Democrats to pass significant pieces of legislation? Could there be a reason, aside from political cowardice, that Democrats haven’t focused on putting an end to earmarking? Essentially all of the Abramoff corruption that has been uncovered has been funneled to Republicans. How much of the annual earmarking has been funneled to Democrats to purchase their complicity and their silence?The fundamental question is whether Democrats are serious about reform:

Mr. PAUL BEGALA: Well, yes, to the latter, absolutely. And Democrats are having an internal debate, which they are resolving now. They're coming out for reform. I have to say, when we were writing this book it was still a big debate. There were a lot of Democrats who didn't want to clean up the system, quite candidly. They, I think, were hoping to sweep out the corrupt Republicans lobbyists and bring in corrupt Democratic lobbyists.

A few sentences later Begala suggests the Democrats are finally ready to get serious about reform. I’m not convinced. A Newsday editorial points out that without an enforcement mechanism all of the talk about reform is just a lot of hot air. Perhaps reform is just too complex and difficult. Fromer SEC Chair Arthur Levitt Jr. has a few thoughts on the subject published in the Washington Post, Cutting The Corruption:

To remedy that, congressional lobbyists should be required to disclose weekly, online, which members of Congress they contributed to and met with, which staff members they lobbied, and what issues were discussed. Lobbyists also should have to affix their signature to these disclosures and, like CEOs who sign false financial statements, face serious criminal penalties if the disclosures are not accurate.

Now that’s a pretty extreme suggestion I haven’t heard anyone propose. It sounds like that would take care of the problem. Wouldn't it?

But disclosure is only part of the solution; independence is also critical. That's why auditing firms are now forbidden from providing non-audit services to auditing clients, why companies can no longer give personal loans to executives or directors, and why a majority of a board of directors must be independent of the company itself. In Washington, any number of conflicts of interest between members of Congress, their staffs, lobbyists and contributors must be untangled. To begin to do this, former members of Congress should be prohibited from visiting the floor of the House, the prohibition on lobbying by former members and their staffs should be extended from one year to four, and all gifts and travel for members and their employees should be banned.

Finally, accountability must be restored. Currently, Congress's ethics committees resemble some of the worst corporate boards from the mid-1990s -- appointed by management and wholly dependent on it for career advancement. Just as corporate boards have been strengthened by rules establishing independent audit committees, Congress would be well-served by scrapping its current ethics committees and replacing them with an independent ethics commission made up of former judges, former members of Congress and other eminent citizens.

Moreover, as with good corporate governance, there needs to be more democracy in American governance. Partisan gerrymandering has created a Congress in which more than 95 percent of the members are assured of keeping their seats for life. Just as shareholders must have access to the proxy to hold corporate board members accountable, citizens must be confident that when they go into the voting booth their votes will be meaningful. It's time to explore ways to lower the barriers of entry for challengers -- through, for instance, free television airtime for all candidates. And to create more competitive congressional districts, we need to follow the leads of states such as Arizona and Iowa and put the responsibility of drawing district boundaries in the hands of nonpartisan boards.

But ultimately, no rule or regulation can transform an organization on its own. What's needed is a cultural change in which those who do the bidding of lobbyists, cash in their positions on Capitol Hill for huge paychecks and accept gifts are scorned, not praised. Accomplishing that requires real leadership, and that's something that only we -- as citizens and voters -- can give to ourselves.

Speaking for myself, I don’t think either political party is serious about reform. If the progressive blogosphere and netroots are serious about campaign reform, we’re going t have to be just as skeptical of Democrats as we are of Republicans. We’re going to have to be just as demanding of Democrats as we are of Republicans. Business as usual, band-aid approaches and “pragmatically possible” solutions cannot be acceptable.

Posted by Gary Boatwright at January 24, 2006 6:05 AM

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Comments

No, earmarking is not the biggest problem. There are projects which should be specifically earmarked for funds. So what's the real problem? A corrupt congress, of course, the misuse of "earmarking" to benefit special interests, everybody takes this for granted and nobody even reads the damned bills. The way the bills are constructed to be thousands of pages long, with everything thrown in including the kitchen sink, the kinds of shit put into them that don't belong there but should be separate bills to be voted on, is the problem. Reform that.

Posted by: MJ at January 24, 2006 7:25 AM

The part I just can't get over is the number of lobbyists who are ALSO running Congressional PACs or fundraising for those PACs.

Where's the national outrage? It's your money people, wake up and smell the corruption!

Posted by: Lapopessa at January 28, 2006 9:52 AM

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