While all of Washington is in a frenzy over ex-Representative Eric Massa's groping and tickling, some actual news (and actual progress, one would like to hope) is being made on the subject of ethics in Congress. Sure, it's more fun to watch Massa's implosion on nationwide television, or to come up with headlines that just write themselves (how about: "Weapon of Massa Self-Destruction"?), but we shouldn't allow this sideshow to distract us from what could shape up this year as a contest between Democrats and Republicans over who can denounce earmarks the loudest. And not just denounce -- but actually ban the practice.
House Democrats, led by Appropriations Committee Chair David Obey and Defense Appropriations Subcommittee Chair Norm Dicks, have just announced that for the upcoming budget, no earmarks will be allowed which are directed to a specific for-profit company. This will ban the practice of steering Pentagon money to singled-out companies in individual districts -- which are essentially no-bid contracts outside the Pentagon's fiscal control.
This is not as much of a "giant step" in ethical earmark reform as it might initially sound, once you decode the parsed language. Earmarks are generally defined as line-items in budget bills which direct money to be spent for a very specific purpose. They are usually inserted by individual members of Congress to benefit entities in their state or district. These entities can be governmental, non-profit, or for-profit.
From a press release by Speaker Nancy Pelosi:
Today's proposal totally bans corporate earmarks -- critical reform that addresses concerns that many Americans have. It ensures that for-profit companies no longer reap the rewards of congressional earmarks and limits the influence of lobbyists on Members of Congress. This ban will ensure good stewardship of taxpayer dollars by the federal government across all agencies.
To prevent any conflicts of interest, this initiative will empower the Defense Department -- not Members of Congress -- to choose which businesses and projects will receive funding. It will open the doors of the Pentagon to small start-ups with no inside connections. It will also require federal agencies to audit 5 percent of all earmarks directed to non-profit entities, to help ensure that non-profit earmarks go for their intended purpose.
In other words, we're only banning corporate earmarks, not all the rest of them. And it started out as only a one-year (coincidentally, also an "election-year") ban, so you'll have to forgive me if I take a wait-and-see approach to what actually happens in the future. Republicans are still figuring out how to respond to this opening bid, and one of the things they're reportedly discussing is to come out against all earmarks. In other words, they're considering raising the ante in this game.
I should point out that this is all happening only over in the House, at least so far. The Senate isn't particularly interested in banning earmarks, mostly because senators generally get bigger earmarks into the budget than representatives. Neither party in the Senate is likely to embrace banishing earmarks completely, or even partially. This, if the House is successful in any sort of ban, could set up a inter-house budget battle later this year.
This is all to the good, as far as I'm concerned. To have both parties trying to outdo each other on who is going to clean up the lobbyist swamp faster is the type of debate I'd certainly like to see more of from Washington. And one which could resonate deeply with the voters. Because the alternative is to stand firm with lobbyists and a corrupt system, which is not going to be very defensible on the campaign trail this year, I'd wager.
Nancy Pelosi certainly deserves some credit on ethics reform. The Democrats passed a sweeping ethics reform law when they came into power in the House, and they got the House ethics watchdog committee working again (it had been completely broken by the Republicans, previously). But the House ethics panel is simply not good enough to take on the inherent problem. Because every single politician in Washington firmly believes something which is absolutely untrue -- that campaign contributions never (never never never!) buy any influence or access or favoritism when it comes time to write legislation. This is so laughably not the case that it's not even work the ink (photons?) to rebut here.
For instance, here is the House Ethics Committee itself, on its investigation into seven members for their use of earmarks to get carve-outs from the Pentagon budget for their favorite donors (this investigation likely spurred today's announcement by Democrats, by the way):
Simply because a member sponsors an earmark for an entity that also happens to be a campaign contributor does not, on these two facts alone, support a claim that a member's actions are being influenced by campaign contributions.
And if you believe that, I've got a "bridge to nowhere" to sell you. Here's how the story ran in the Washington Post, for contrast:
The House ethics committee, in an investigation of five Democrats and two Republicans on the subcommittee that funds the Pentagon, found that the seven lawmakers steered more than $245 million worth of earmarks to clients of a single firm and collected more than $840,000 in political contributions from the firm's lobbyists and its clients in little more than two years. Most of those clients were for-profit contractors, several of whom told congressional investigators that they thought believed [sic] their donations made it possible for them to win support for their projects.
Even as the Justice Department continues a criminal investigation of this practice, the ethics committee found no "direct or indirect link" in the earmarks-for-contributions allegations, saying the lawmakers each made their decisions independently of the donations. Democratic leaders effectively rejected that ruling Wednesday by declaring the need to forbid such earmarks, although some are pushing for further steps.
Politicians in Washington are used to this doublethink being unquestioned and unquestionable truth -- that campaign contributions buy nothing from them, and that they simply are never influenced by any donor on any issue whatsoever. The fact that it is sheer bunkum escapes them.
But it doesn't escape anyone else. And picking a fight on who can ban more earmarks right now has the possibility of turning the subject into a major campaign issue this year. It feeds into the whole "deficit-hawk" and anti-corruption feeling out there. Personally, I wouldn't mind in the least if every politician being interviewed anywhere on the campaign trail had to answer the question: "Are you for banning all earmarks, and if not, why not?" Because it would force them to defend the practice, which (again) politicians in Washington see as normal behavior, but voters see as rank and rancid corruption of the political process.
John McCain did try to make this an issue in the last presidential campaign. But then, during last year's budget process, the press got confused and tried to hold President Obama to McCain's promises. The net result was earmarks were banned from one budget bill, but not from all of them (making it a shell game, in essence). But McCain had a point. The process is utterly and completely out of control. In one year's budget, thousands of earmarks are now routinely inserted. This isn't the way it used to happen -- earmarks used to be comparatively rare.
Because the process is so absolutely out of control -- and because it is so obviously institutionalized corruption -- the only answer may be to just ban the whole process itself. While Democrats have made an interesting opening bid in this political game by banning all for-profit corporate earmarks, I will be interested to see where the issue goes from here. I would thoroughly approve of an all-out bidding war between Democrats and Republicans on who can ban the most earmarks, and who can make the ban more permanent. It might not help much on the overall size of the budget (earmarks are actually a pretty small fraction of the total budget, in dollar amounts), but ethically and symbolically (and, not least, politically) it would be the right thing to do. For both parties.
Cross-posted at The Huffington Post
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-- Chris Weigant