Remember how the Democrats were going to change the “culture of corruption” in 2006? It looks like they can once again look to the beam in their own eye. Earlier this week, the Washington Post reported that Senator Mary Landrieu (D-LA) has a brewing scandal after taking over $30,000 in contributions from a literacy-program provider within days of inserting an earmark favorable to the company. Landrieu now has opened her files in an effort to explain away the amazing coincidence:
A $2 million earmark for the D.C. schools from Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) has become an issue in her campaign for re-election after an ethics watchdog group called for federal and congressional investigations, reports The Post’s James V. Grimaldi.
As reported in The Post’s investigative series about the D.C. school system, Landrieu inserted the earmark in 2001 so school officials would buy a reading program from one of her major campaign contributors. School officials, who had other reading programs in mind, were initially resistant. …
The $2 million earmark was guided into law by Landrieu in the fall of 2001, just after she had received more than $30,000 in campaign contributions at a fundraiser held by Best. Best told The Post that the idea for the fundraiser came in a call from Landrieu’s office after he had met with the senator about getting funding for Voyager.
According to Voyager’s founder, he proposed the fundraiser well after he had pitched the idea to Landrieu, but had not seen any action on the proposal. The DC school system didn’t want the Voyager system, but that didn’t stop Landrieu. After Best and Voyager contributed over $30,000 to her campaign on November 2nd, 2001, Landrieu inserted the earmark for Voyager’s $2 million contract on November 6th.
For those with calculators, that represents an ROI of about 6600% for Voyager, at least in terms of gross revenue. Once could also cast it as a sale cost of 1.5%. Either way, it shows what an incredible bargain Landrieu represents in the politician-leasing market.
This is the reason so many of us push hard on pork-related reform. The taxpayers got stuck with a $2 million bill for a program its recipient didn’t want, all so that a politician could get campaign funds and further entrench her incumbency. Pork corrupts, and it has to end.
The House Republicans have begun their retreat meetings at Greenbrier, and Robert Novak says that’s not the only context of retreat that will come of them. The GOP doesn’t appear inclined to put the lessons of 2006 into play in 2008 on battling against pork, and instead will offer half-measures that will ensure business as usual on Capitol Hill:
When House Republicans convene behind closed doors today at the Greenbrier resort in White Sulphur Springs, W.Va., they have a chance to make two bold moves to restore their reputation for fiscal responsibility. First, they could declare a one-year moratorium on Republican congressional earmarks. Second, they could name earmark reformer Rep. Jeff Flake to a vacancy on the House Appropriations Committee. In fact, they almost surely will do neither.
Instead, during the retreat Republicans are likely to adopt some limitation on earmarks that will have no public impact and will exert no pressure on the earmark-happy Democratic majority. Consideration of Flake’s candidacy for Appropriations was postponed until after this week’s earmark debate at the Greenbrier. But, content with a half-measure on earmarks, the House Republicans are unlikely to place Flake, an insistent reformer, in the midst of the pork-dispensing appropriators.
Instead of taking advantage of obvious public disgust with earmark-related corruption over the last two years, the Republicans will offer no significant change in direction. Even a one-year moratorium on pork won’t pass muster. The fear that the GOP will have no mechanism to protect incumbencies remains too strong to overcome any momentum for reform.
Jeff Flake will almost certainly not get his requested appointment to the Appropriations Committee as a result. The GOP will probably live to regret this, and Flake has already warned them of the consequences. Instead of representing the GOP and its voluntary moratorium on a committee chaired by Democrat porker David Obey, Flake will remain on the outside fighting both parties on earmarks. Last year he offered a dozen amendments attempting to strip out pork projects. If left off the committee, he says that number will increase rapidly and include Republican projects.
The Republicans have an opportunity to lead a generational change in Congressional politics. If they skip it, the missed chance will demonstrate a lack of political courage that should lead Republicans to demand new leadership in next year’s 111th Congress. Let’s hope Novak called this one incorrectly.
The Washington Examiner wonders whether George Bush fears Congress more than his constituents in a battle over pork proliferation. As I noted yesterday, the White House appears to have backed away from issuing an executive order defunding the non-legislative earmarks in the omnibus spending bill, which account for 90% of the nine thousand pork items. Porkbusters wonder why the President won’t follow a course of action that follows the law and forces Congress to adhere to its own rules:
Conservatives and good-government groups have been urging Bush since before Christmas to issue an executive order directing federal agencies to ignore earmarks contained in committee reports that are not attached to legislation voted into law. Bush has previously picked fights with Congress on executive privilege issues. Yet he seems uncharacteristically reluctant to do so now, despite being on legal grounds declared solid by none other than the Congressional Research Service and the U.S. Supreme Court.
So what is Bush waiting for?
Signing such an executive order would eliminate most earmarks and force Congress to clean up its act. By funneling billions of dollars to favored — and often secret — earmark recipients, members of Congress bypass their own legislative process, as well as the competitive bidding typically required in the executive branch.
Bush has received warnings from Congressional leadership in both parties that cancellation of the earmarks would lead to angry relations from members in 2008. This amounts to a type of extortion. How much should non-angry relations cost the American taxpayer? Is it really worth the $16.7 billion contained in these earmarks for everyone to have a Rodney King moment and get along — for about a day?
Or are there other considerations? Last night, the Politico reported that the Democrats in the House have stalled on voting for contempt citations against Harriet Miers and Josh Bolten over the firings of presidentially-appointed federal prosecutors. Their leadership says they’ve put it off to keep a bipartisan effort on an economic stimulus alive, but privately admit they don’t have the votes to approve the citations. Perhaps the White House figures that the $16.7 billion has convinced enough Representatives to vote down the citations.
Is that unfair? Well, when our elected officials demand that they keep their money in exchange for doing the nation’s business, they have identified themselves as commodities to be bought and sold, if not the explicit basis of the sales. If Bush wants to end that kind of politics using the clear authority he has to do so, he will have no better opportunity.
The Las Vegas Review-Journal notes that the excuse used by members of Congress for pork-barrel spending doesn’t add up, like almost every Congressional budget. Politicians claim that their constituents demand the projects that they bring back from Washington, but as the LVRJ notes, it isn’t the constituents asking for the money. The federal dollars usually wind up supporting — other politicians:
Lawmakers who continue to indulge in earmarks — self-described fiscal conservatives among them — argue that if they don’t bring some money home for their constituents, other states are lined up at the trough to steal the leftovers.
But the representatives and senators who’ve stopped bringing home the bacon aren’t hearing complaints from voters. In fact, many enjoy the support of citizens tired of seeing tax dollars squandered on projects that have little merit. These taxpayers are content to let other states bear the guilt of such extravagance, if such sacrifices bring the country closer to fiscal responsibility and accountability.
No, most of the squealing these lawmakers hear comes from … state and local governments, the biggest beneficiaries of federal pork.
Members of Congress, who spend most of their time in Washington, don’t come up with ideas for earmarks on their own. They’re bombarded with pork requests from state legislatures, law enforcement agencies, public colleges and universities and municipal governments.
This exposes one of the dirty secrets of the earmark process. If one looks through the earmarks carefully, a large percentage of them go to other politicians. It feeds the system that produces the candidates and ensures that incumbents maintain their power base in their home districts and states. Failure to feed the machine could result in an end to the career in Congress.
The Review-Journal mentions several Congressmen and Senators who have rejected pork for their districts and states, including Jeff Flake and Tom Coburn. Neither of them earmark funds at all, and neither does my Congressman, John Kline (R-MN). He converted to the porkbuster cause after the 2006 election taught him and the rest of the GOP a painful lesson.
Not that conversion has been easy. The LVRJ notes that our district has its share of unhappy local politicians who counted on getting easy money from Washington. The Scott County board wanted some cash for a road in their area, but Kline refused to acquiesce. Jon Ulrich, one of the commissioners, says that he wanted Kline to work within the system while trying to change it — or, in other words, hypocritically earmark funds while railing against earmarks.
Kline’s not a hypocrite, unlike others who have no problem complaining about extra-Constitutional federal action while larding up their home districts. We need more Republicans like Kline, and a GOP leadership that recognizes the risks they take. That’s why many of us continue to call for Jeff Flake to get the open seat on the House Appropriations Committee — so that the Republican leadership can demonstrate that they want to end the hypocrisy as well.
The Bush administration will probably not issue an executive order canceling the 9,000 earmarks in the omnibus spending bill, the New York Times reports, as the White House does not want to have a war with Congress in 2008. Instead, they will review each request line by line and may demand support for each in writing from its sponsor, proving that the money actually got requested by its beneficiary and it will be spent as intended. This will disappoint many who saw this as an final opportunity for this administration and the GOP to reclaim some credibility on fiscal discipline:
President Bush is unlikely to defy Congress on spending billions of dollars earmarked for pet projects, but he will probably insist that lawmakers provide more justification for such earmarks in the future, administration officials said Monday.
Fiscal conservatives in Congress and budget watchdogs have been urging Mr. Bush to issue an executive order instructing agencies to disregard the many earmarks listed just in committee reports, not in the text of legislation.
More than 90 percent of earmarks are specified that way, not actually included in the texts. White House officials say such earmarks are not legally binding on the president.
Congressional leaders of both parties, who are scheduled to meet on Tuesday with the president, said Mr. Bush would provoke a huge outcry on Capitol Hill if he ignored those earmarks.
Some people have tried to see the silver lining in the failure. Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform sees the approach as a possible way for Bush to set a precedent for dealing with “the most egregious earmarks”, and one that could be demanded of presidential candidates to follow in the future. It also keeps the agencies themselves from getting stuck in the middle between the White House and Congress in a political battle that would leave few unmarked by the political strife.
If Bush demands support in writing for these earmarks, that might also have a beneficial effect. These pork projects got dropped into non-legislative text, and so have no sunlight on sponsors or their connections to the beneficiaries. Forcing the individual sponsors to supply justification, even just on the sillier and “egregious” earmarks, will push the porkers into the light — and provide their opponents with some ammunition in the next election. The earmarks may not be worth the risk in most cases and might get shelved.
That depends, however, on the Bush administration’s tenacity and dedication to eliminating earmarks. So far, we haven’t seen much evidence of either on this issue. An EO would have forced this and future Congresses to follow their own rules and earmark with greater transparency, and it wouldn’t require another bureaucracy to manage it. Somehow I doubt that the Bush administration has the patience or even the inclination to force legislators to provide explicit and open support for even the worst of the earmarks in the package.
Some lessons take a while to fully sink into the consciousness, and apparently the lesson of 2006 still hasn’t quite finished doing so. Republican as well as Democratic appropriators have flooded the White House with demands that he drop the idea of issuing an executive order to defund the non-legislative earmarks in the omnibus spending bill. Democrats warn of year-long war with the Bush administration, while Republicans complain that they need pork to win elections:
The leaders of the Senate Appropriations Committee are calling on President Bush to back away from threats to kill funding for lawmakers’ pet projects.
The pre-emptive warnings from the top Democrat and Republican on the panel are the clearest signs yet that President Bush could face a bipartisan backlash if he uses his executive authority to wipe out the more than $7 billion in earmarks. ….
The executive order would generate enormous support from fiscal hawks, but would roil already poor relations between the White House and the Democratic Congress — not to mention infuriate many Republicans touting the projects to their constituents.
No less than an authority on pork than Senator Robert Byrd (D-Robert Byrd’s West Virginia) calls Bush a hypocrite for defunding the earmarks. Byrd points out that Bush didn’t issue an EO for Republican budgets, and argues that means he shouldn’t do so for Democrats, either. However, that’s the pot calling the kettle black. Democrats won the election in 2006 by promising to reform an out-of-control earmarking process, and instead broke the very rules they passed a year ago in airdropping them into conference reports to frustrate transparency.
Republicans aren’t covering themselves in glory, either. Thad Cochran (R-MS) has lobbied hard for the White House to respect Congress’ work in violating its own ethics rules. Cochran wants to protect the pork by arguing that throwing earmarks into the report language makes legislation more efficient. It also makes it much easier to hide the earmarks and their sponsors, and then to draw lines between the pork and the contributions politicians receive from their beneficiaries.
Congress clearly will not reform itself. Neither party shows any inclination to follow even improved rules that only enhance the transparency of earmarking instead of eliminating it. Indeed, leaders of both parties brag about the efficiency and fairness of opacity and rulebreaking.
When breaking the rules becomes a virtue among Congressional leadership, why should the President choose comity over fiscal responsibility, and collegiality over clean government? Press President Bush to do what Congress’ leadership cannot — end the Capitol Hill pork barbecue. You can make the difference. Call 202-456-1111 and politely explain why the President should issue the EO, or e-mail the staff at email@example.com.
The opening on the House Appropriations Committee gives the Republicans a defining moment for their brand in the 110th Congress. Will they appoint a crusading anti-pork activist who can shine4 sunlight on the appropriations process, or will they assign the seat to someone more likely to go along with the status quo? Pressure has increased for the GOP’s House leadership to support the crusader, Jeff Flake of Arizona (via Memeorandum):
House Republicans this month will face a defining moment when they fill an opening on the Appropriations Committee: Either appoint an anti-earmark lawmaker or risk further alienating conservatives at the grassroots level.
The intensifying effort to persuade Republican leaders to select Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) to fill ex-Rep. Roger Wicker’s (R-Miss.) Appropriations seat grew stronger Monday as FreedomWorks endorsed the maverick lawmaker.
Former House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas), now FreedomWorks president, said in a release, “Appointing Jeff Flake would make a major statement to the American people that the Republican Party is about the big ideas, such as ending wasteful earmarks and bringing transparency to the Appropriations Committee.” Armey added that the appointment is “a test” for the Republican Party, suggesting the GOP will not be back in the congressional majority unless it takes bold steps such as tapping Flake.
After sweeping GOP losses in the 2006 election, many Republicans on and off Capitol Hill faulted the rapid growth of earmarks as a major part of the party’s problem. President Bush last year pressed Congress to significantly curtail earmark use.
Yesterday, I mentioned the website Make It Flake and asked CapQ readers to call the party leadership to press for Flake’s appointment. His competition is rumored to mainly be Tom Cole, chair of the NRCC. I’ve had Rep. Cole on my show a few times, and he would make a fine choice, too — under normal circumstances. These are not normal circumstances, however.
Republicans took control of Congress in 1994 on the promise to clean up government and to reduce spending and influence. For a while, the GOP took that seriously. However, none of us can deny that the Republicans in Congress made a mess of that mission over the previous six years when they had a Republican in the White House that didn’t use his veto power to discipline his own party. They went hog-wild, pun intended, and turned pork-barrel spending from a hobby to an industry.
The GOP lost control of Congress as a result of that failure. Now, they need to make bold moves to assure voters that they learned their lesson. While Tom Cole is a fine Representative and part of the solution for the GOP, the opportunity to appoint a crusader cannot be missed. It will make a huge statement about the direction of the party — and a step in forcing discipline on a Congress that clearly resists it under Democratic leadership as well.
It’s a defining moment, and a brilliant opportunity. Let’s hope that the House Republicans take advantage of it.
Does America want a new direction on pork? Will Republicans start offering credible opposition to its corrosive and corrupting influence? Both have an opportunity to move Congress towards fiscal responsibility and transparency in appropriations. Jeff Flake, the crusading Arizona representative on pork, wants a seat on the House Appropriations Committee, and you can help him get it.
Supporters of Jeff Flake have launched a new website, Make It Flake. They list the phone numbers for Republican leadership in the House and have a function where readers can describe the effect of their phone calls. They need people, especially Republicans, to make those calls and let their voices be heard inside the Beltway. Politely make the point that the Republicans need to demonstrate their commitment to fiscal responsibility and clean government in concrete actions as well as rhetoric. Appointing Flake to Appropriations will send that message clearly.
Congress begins its session tomorrow, and this appointment will probably made shortly thereafter. Time is short. If we want a voice for earmark reform on Appropriations, we need to speak clearly and loudly today.
Once again, the power of pork to sustain incumbents gets its best demonstration in the person of John Murtha (D-PA). The acknowledged king of earmarks in the House gains the attention of the New York Times editorial board today, which notes the cozy and lucrative relationship between more than two dozen contractors in Murtha’s district and the hundreds of millions of dollars in pork he provided them. It also highlights what roughly amounts to a commission on the sale of Murtha’s power as an appropriator:
Mr. Murtha led all House members this year, securing $162 million in district favors, according to the watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense. … In 1991, Mr. Murtha used a $5 million earmark to create the National Defense Center for Environmental Excellence in Johnstown to develop anti-pollution technology for the military. Since then, it has garnered more than $670 million in contracts and earmarks. Meanwhile it is managed by another contractor Mr. Murtha helped create, Concurrent Technologies, a research operation that somehow was allowed to be set up as a tax-exempt charity, according to The Washington Post. Thanks to Mr. Murtha, Concurrent has boomed; the annual salary for its top three executives averages $462,000.
There’s been no report of Mr. Murtha’s profiting personally. “This is about jobs,” the congressman insists. But the Murtha operation — which has become a model for other entrepreneurial lawmakers — is a gross example of quid pro quo Washington. Every one of the 26 beneficiaries of Mr. Murtha’s earmarks in last year’s defense budget made contributions to his campaign kitty, a total of $413,250, according to the newspaper Roll Call.
I’ve written several times about Murtha’s connections to Concurrent and other contractors, but Concurrent really exemplifies the way in which earmarks not only distort federal power, but also works to maintain incumbencies. Murtha created Concurrent as a vehicle for his pork power to reach back into his district. Setting it up as a tax-exempt charity allowed its revenues to remain in the district, rather than contributing to the same federal revenue that Murtha regularly raids. Its top execs make over $400,000 per year, a strange level for a “charity”, and all of it coming from federal contracting where full multibid competiton comprised only 5.5% of their work in 2007.
In return for shoveling hundreds of millions of dollars into his district with no opportunity for other companies to compete for the work, he gives a market advantage to his favorites — and they return the favor. Knowing that Murtha is the only person who keeps them in business, and in Concurrent’s case the reason for their existence at all, they churn out campaign funds in huge numbers for their pork king. Do you wonder why incumbents have a re-election rate of over 90%? This is the reason; people like Murtha get legal kickbacks in order to remain entrenched in power.
In any other context, Murtha would lose his job. If a businessman in the private sector received gifts like this from vendors, his company would kick him to the curb. Not so in Congress; on Capitol Hill, Murtha’s colleagues on both sides of the aisle aspire to such low ethical behavior and compete to gain access to the federal treasury for their own political ambitions. And their constituencies reward them for bringing home pork and keep the vicious cycle in motion.
It will not stop until the constituents make it clear that they want Representatives and Senators who won’t be bought or even rented. When people like John Kline and Jeff Flake stop being a small minority and gain access to the levers of power because the American electorate has sickened of the corruption and elected like-minded politicians, then the Congress may actually start accomplishing the people’s business rather than existing as a sinecure for the compromised and incoherent.
The Republican brand got a little cleaner today with the announced retirement of Rep. John Doolittle. The ten-term Californian has a big legal mess on his hands over his tight relationship with corrupt lobbyist Jack Abramoff as well as the financial relationship between his wife and Doolittle’s contributors. This opens the door for Iraq war veteran Eric Eglund to succeed Doolittle:
Doolittle came close to losing re-election in 2006 in one of the most conservative districts in California, and some in his own party believed he couldn’t survive this time around.
He has denied wrongdoing in his ties to Abramoff, the disgraced former lobbyist whom he considered a close friend. But after the FBI raided the congressman’s Virginia home in April looking for information about event-planning work that Doolittle’s wife did for Abramoff, the congressman was forced to step down from the powerful Appropriations Committee.
A flurry of grand jury subpoenas to the congressman and his aides followed. Party leaders pointedly declined to encourage Doolittle’s re-election plans and his fundraising lagged.
Doolittle is contesting subpoenas for his congressional records as part of a larger dispute between Congress and the Justice Department over the scope of criminal investigations of lawmakers. That made it unlikely that his legal situation would be resolved before November’s election.
For months, Doolittle resisted suggestions that he retire, branding his GOP critics “weasels.” But he faced mounting legal bills and at least two declared Republican primary opponents, with others waiting in the wings. Meanwhile, the Democrat he barely beat in 2006, Charlie Brown, collected 10 times as much money as the incumbent for a rematch.
I wrote about the issue with his wife almost exactly a year ago, when Doolittle “fired” her. She had acted as a consultant for recruiting contributors — and got commissions from the donations. In other words, contributors knew that 15% of everything they gave the Congressman would wind up in his personal funds, a powerful motivation for corruption. Doolittle lost the endorsement of the local GOP in August as the party chair accused him of betraying his conservative roots.
This should make it easier for Eric Egland to win the nomination. Eric joined me on Heading Right Radio in September to talk about his candidacy to unseat Doolittle. Now that no incumbent stands iin his way, Egland should have a clear path to securing the seat for Republicans — and in cleaning up the brand, too.
Meanwhile, with Roger Wicker (R-MS) moving from the House to the Senate, a seat on the Appropriations Committee has opened up, and porkbuster Jeff Flake wants it. NRCC chair Tom Cole wants it too, and he’s a good man; I’m much less worried than Eric Erickson with Cole. However, this gives the GOP a chance to show some real effort at cleaning up the porkfest on Capitol Hill. If they miss this chance to appoint a real porkbuster to the seat, it will be a great opportunity wasted. Call your Congressman and insist on support for Flake’s bid.