The Cost of Congressional Corruption

The Cost of Congressional Corruption

Article  | Quick Takes
Jan 13, 2006  | 5 min read

A lot of lawmakers and high powered lobbyists appear likely to turn their Gucci pinstripes in for prison stripes in the not so distant future. It is really not an overstatement to say that the current stable of lawmakers could be labeled as one of the most corrupt Congress's in the nation's history.

From arena skyboxes to fancy dinners to golf junkets–and in a few published cases even out-and-out bribes–lobbyists over the last few years have done almost anything to establish good will with certain lawmakers who can help them pack in the pork for their paymasters.

It some cases, these relationships become so nebulous it's unclear where the lobby shop stops and the lawmaker's office begins. A perfect illustration of this is the fact that, according to Newsweek, Rep. Tom Delay's (R-TX) staffers were using Jack Abramoff's stadium skyboxes so much, they started think that they owned them. Newsweek quoted a source as saying that lobbyists like Abramoff are akin to drug dealers–they give you a taste until you are hooked, and then they own you.

When special interests gain influence through giving favors or bribes to lawmakers, democracy takes a hit and rational, common sense policymaking is left out in the cold. As recent stories have broken in the news, we have learned that certain lawmakers provided federal contracts and spending earmarks to the highest bidders. In short, Congress has hung out a shingle, “Pork at a Price.”

Recently “retired” Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham's (R-CA) cozy relationship with two defense contractors is emblematic. Cunningham sold his house to the contracting firm's president at a greatly inflated value and then lived in the same man's yacht free of charge. In all, Mr. Cunningham received more than $2.4 million in personal bribes from contractors attempting to secure earmarks from and contracts with the federal government.

Then there is the case of Rep. William Jefferson (D-LA), who is likely going to the big house for soliciting bribes from a small telecommunications firm in Virginia. In exchange, he was to lobby two African countries to use the firm's technology and convince the Export-Import Bank to approve loans for its project.

And then there is the coup de grace, the Jack Abramoff brouhaha, which has the potential to take a handful of lawmakers down in flames.

Some say that the system of selling influence is as old as the hills. That may be true, but in the post 9-11 era of budget politics, influence peddling has exploded. As the federal dollars available for earmarks and federal contracts has skyrocketed, so too has the level of illegal bribes, gifts and junkets. Jack Abramoff himself observed, “More money available from government is blood in the water for sharks.”

As we continue the debate about lobbying reform, it is clear to us that we need greater transparency when it comes to lobbyist’s activities, and tougher rules and enforcement over the actions of the K Street Class. But we also have to reduce the amount of “blood in the water” by cutting the number of political spending earmarks and eliminating political control over federal contracts. The earmarks that we can't get rid of should be more transparent; they should be put in the legislation, along with the sponsor of the pork project. This way, members won't be able to hide their earmarks from public scrutiny, and will instead be forced to wear the legislative equivalent of a scarlet .JPG” for pork on their chest, letting taxpayer knows exactly who is hijacking their money.

It is clear to us that lobbyist and lawmakers have too much power. Any reform efforts should limit their ability to dish out paybacks to special interests in return for favors. We should also make the whole process much more transparent. The warm glow of sunlight is always the best disinfectant against corruption.