Democrats complain of a “culture of corruption” in the Republican-controlled Congress, and they are right in one respect: The spending process has been so twisted by the Republican majority that it has become inherently dirty.
The instruments of this perversion are “earmarks,” special provisions attached to spending bills that direct federal money to specific projects. Earmarks are how Congress diverts spending to pork-barrel local priorities and to other special interests. This practice has long existed, but Republicans have made it part of the fabric of their governing.
In 1994, there were 4,126 earmarks in the 13 appropriations bills. In 2004, there were 14,040. This year’s highway bill alone had 6,371 earmarks. An industry has grown up around this specially designated money.
The number of firms registered to lobby members on the appropriations committees increased from 1,865 to 3,523 between 2000 and 2004, according to Knight Ridder. For relatively small fees to lobbyists and donations to congressmen, corporations and localities can get a big payoff. Ronald Utt, a transportation expert at the Heritage Foundation, points to an example in Virginia that demonstrates the calculation. Culpeper County wanted to build a $3.5 million community sports complex. A lobbying outfit approached the county and said that for a mere $5,000-a-month for 18 months ($90,000 total), it could get the feds to pick up the $3.5 million tab for the complex.
Amazingly, Culpeper County declined, but this sort of offer is often accepted. When it comes to the Army Corps of Engineers, Utt argues that “many of its projects are bought and sold in a marketplace controlled by members of Congress, lobbyists and clients, who work together to divert taxpayer dollars to pet projects.” He points to Marlowe and Co., a Washington lobbying outfit that specializes in funneling Corps money to beach communities. The firm takes credit for 170 earmarks since 1998.
This is a corrupting process because it depends on congressmen prioritizing special interests, slipping earmarks into bills with no debate, and getting rewarded for it with campaign contributions. In the case of Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham (R., Calif.), who has resigned following bribery charges, the sleaze slid into outright criminality. Defense contractors who had almost no business got smart and began larding Cunningham with contributions and under-the-table payoffs. Suddenly, the firms won federal contracts funneled to them through earmarks championed by Cunningham.
Cunningham might have been exceptional in his lack of subtlety, but other congressmen work much the same way. Last week, it was revealed that Rep. Joe Knollenberg (R., Mich.), inserted an earmark into a transportation bill that forced Amtrak to haul additional private freight cars or forgo $8.3 million in additional federal dollars. The freight cars in question belonged to ExpressTrak, a company whose owner is a big Knollenberg donor. Knollenberg now says he is going to rescind the earmark, showing that some members of Congress are still capable of being shamed.
This trading of contributions for official favors is ingrained in the appropriations process. It is part of the scandal around former GOP superlobbyist Jack Abramoff. A Washington Post analysis shows that eight of the 20 top recipients of contributions from Abramoff and his team sit on appropriations committees. One e-mail exchange between Abramoff and an associate, Tony Rudy, has Rudy asking whether a Native American tribe can fund a hunting trip for congressional staff as a “thank you … for the approps we got.”
It is hard to imagine a practice or culture more inimical to the spirit of the Republicans who took over Congress in 1994. A decade later, the GOP has embraced the tactics of the corrupt, free-spending Democrats they overthrew. Meet the new appropriator, same as the old appropriator.
Now it is the minority Democrats who are talking reform. One bill sponsored by liberal Reps. David Obey (D., Wis.) and Barney Frank (D., Mass.), features an attempt to tamp down on earmarks. Republicans would do well to run with that idea, and clean up the House before someone else does it for them.