The silly season is well upon us. As the election grows close, the political divisions between the parties appear deeper than ever. In fact, as candidates define differences on issues ranging from immigration to tax cuts, there seems to be only one bi-partisan issue these days: scandal. Each party is trying to claim the moral high-ground by accusing the other of fiscal and political mismanagement. As the lawmakers throw their stones at the other parties glass house, we see only one loser: the nation’s taxpayers.
It’s hard to pick the most incredible story from the past year: Duke Cunningham’s (R-CA) lobbyist-bought Louis-Phillipe commode or cold hard cash hidden stuffed in Rep. Jefferson’s (D-LA) freezer; Rep. Mollohan’s (D-WV) land deals and federally-subsidized non-profit organizations or Rep. Taylor’s (R-NC) land deals and federally-subsidized non-profit organizations. The list goes on.
The scandals surrounding disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff and criminal congressmen Bob Ney (R-OH) and Duke Cunningham (R-CA) have, for good reason, been the front-burner stories of congressional corruption for the better part of the past year. But to focus only on those stories or on only one party is to ignore the depth of scandal and abuse of power that has embroiled the 109th Congress almost since its opening days. Much of the taint from these scandals is the direct result of the congressional practice of earmarking—or bringing home the bacon— yet appropriators have responded not by reforming and restraining the process, but raining billions of earmarked dollars onto their districts. This is even truer in a reelection year, with so many members tying their hopes of returning to Washington for the 110th Congress to their ability to bring home federal dollars.
With business-as-usual appropriators at the helm, even the most horrid examples of earmarking graft have done little to reduce the power that lobbyists have in the halls of Congress. Exhibit “A” is the scandal surrounding the “king” of appropriations, House Appropriations Committee Chairman Jerry Lewis (R-CA), who has been implicated in a well-documented scandal involving his relationship with several lobbyists at a powerful Washington lobbying firm, including former Rep. Bill Lowery and former members of Rep. Lewis’ staff.
Exhibit “B” of Congress’ addiction to the corrupt status quo is its inability to pass meaningful lobbying or earmark reform. Lobbying reform died a quiet death months ago. The very modest earmarking rule change in the House simply required that bills contain the name of the lawmaker requesting an earmark. Sort of. In reality, the rule is riddled with Mack-truck sized loopholes that will leave many earmarks as orphans. As a result, the public will be barely the wiser when this years appropriations bills pass in a lame-duck session after the election.
The list of members caught red-handed in ethical lapses over the last two years reads like a veritable “Who’s Who” of appropriators.
Rep. Alan Mollohan (D-WV) poured hundreds of millions of dollars in earmarks into his district. Some of those millions were directed towards West Virginian non-profits that he helped start and that are run by his former staff, while millions more federal dollars were directed to his landowner partner, CEO Dale R. McBride of FMW Composite Systems Inc. Ironically, or for this Congress maybe appropriately, while Mollohan was benefiting unscrupulously by hiding massive real estate assets and financial transactions, he was the ranking member on the House Ethics Committee.
Though not embroiled in the scandals that have caught up some of his fellow appropriators, Rep. John Murtha (D-PA) was found by the New York Times to be a kind of ‘earmark general.’ In a particularly revealing piece about congressional earmarking of defense dollars in the House, Murtha indicated that he divvies up defense earmarks amongst the herd to ensure they’ll cast their votes to his liking. He has uncanny power among Democrats and Republicans alike, given the immense power of his position and his skill at using that power to his political advantage.
More recently, embattled Rep. Charles Taylor (R-NC), the chair of the Interior subcommittee of the Appropriations Committee, has felt the sting of his earmark overindulgence being laid before the public. The Wall Street Journal reported last week that he funneled earmark funds to pay for millions in road and other infrastructure improvements in his North Carolina district, all in the vicinity of his vast real estate empire. One of the wealthiest members of Congress appears to be using his position to boost his bottom line.
For the 109th Congress, land ownership has been a particularly fishy subject. Just this week, Senate Majority Leader (and appropriator) Harry Reid (D-NV) admitted that he failed to report a sweetheart land transfer deal that netted him over $1 million in profit when the land was sold last year, even though he hadn’t owned it since 2003. In a separate incident, Sen. Reid also felt obliged to repay several thousand dollars to his own campaign coffers that he had improperly used to tip the staff of the hotel where he lives while in Washington.
And finally, though not appropriators, Rep. William Jefferson (D-LA) and Curt Weldon (R-PA) face significant charges regarding the use of their seats to push earmarks to business associates and family members. Rep. Jefferson is alleged to have accepted $400,000 in bribes from a company pushing to have the Army purchase its product. Rep. Weldon is charged with obtaining earmarks for the benefit of his children, close friends, and former employees.
Though each party would have you believe that the other is more corrupt, the reality is that both parties are guilty. What is clear to us is that corruption and graft in Congress is the only bi-partisan issue on Capitol Hill at the moment. No matter which party is in charge of Congress next year, the first order of business should be to enact a “Leave No Earmark Behind” bill that will spread some disinfecting sunshine on the whole process. Without real solutions, taxpayers can expect that the stench of corruption and abuse in the next Congress will be as bad as it was in the last.
For more information, contact Steve Ellis at (202)-546-8500 ext. 126 or e-mail .