An Enduring Corruption: Why Congress Won’t Reform
By WINSLOW T. WHEELER
Having endured the Congressman Randy “Duke” Cunningham saga up close and personal for the last two years, most recently in the form of Mr. Brent Wilkes’ conviction on all 13 counts for the corrupt acts that he and Cunningham performed, San Diego has had a ring-side seat on modern sleaze in Congress.
Since the Dukester’s resignation from the U.S. House of Representatives in November 2005, there has been a lot of congressional activity to change how members of Congress do business with lobbyists like Mr. Wilkes and how Congress enacts those “earmarks” that Cunningham chased so assiduously to earn his bribes. Voters in San Diego County have a right to think that there is potentially a positive side to the mess; the scandal could produce reforms to retard at least some of the more painfully obvious abuses.
Sorry. It hasn’t happened, and it’s not going to.
I worked on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., for 31 years as a staffer for Republican and Democratic senators, helping them chase down pork and stay cozy with the network of lobbyists that pay huge sums to members of Congress to keep federal tax dollars flowing through the congressional pork process. Despite dozens of pages of new rules and “reforms,” and thousands of sanctimonious speeches, nothing has changed. In some ways, legislative ethics are now even worse than when felon Cunningham was selling himself in return for used cars, old furniture, prostitutes and other goodies.
Just after the November 2006 elections that brought the Democrats into the majority in Congress, the new Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-San Francisco, promised “the most ethical Congress ever.” Her delivery on part of that promise was a new set of rules for the pork process on Capitol Hill. They permit any spending bill to be ruled “out of order” (and therefore dead) unless it is accompanied by a list of earmarks in the bill. The identity of each earmark’s congressional sponsor must be displayed along with “the name and address of the intended recipient” or “the intended location” of the earmark and a certification that no member of Congress has any financial interest in the earmark. In other words, the reform sheds “sunshine” on earmarks.
Sounds good, doesn’t it?
The new sunlight is more deceptive than illuminating; each earmark’s description is authored not by an objective entity, but by the earmark’s congressional sponsor. In other words, Duke Cunningham, for example, would have been allowed to explain without fear of contradiction why Brent Wilkes’ earmarks should stay in the defense budget as essential national security spending. Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., can today freely articulate every reason the Boeing Company feeds her as to why a few billion more should be spent on C-17 transport aircraft the secretary of defense doesn’t want. She will not be required to explain what other defense spending will be axed to make her superfluous C-17s available, nor that they will never arrive in time to play a useful role in the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan.
Sen. Boxer and all other congressional porkers would be crazy not to comply with the new “anti-pork” reforms. They are nothing less than free advertising. None of the pork in this new “reformed” system will be objectively evaluated by or honestly described to anyone. We won’t know if it is actually needed, how much it will really cost, or whether spending on something else would be a better idea.
But it gets worse. The so-called “sunshine” that the Pelosi reforms have shed on earmarks is highly selective. The new definition of earmarks excludes huge amounts of pork. The Washington, D.C.-based watchdog organization Taxpayers for Common Sense found 70 earmarks that the House Appropriations Committee failed to identify in its new fiscal year 2008 Department of Defense Appropriations bill, adding to the 1,339 earmarks the committee did disclose. These unlisted 70 earmarks were fat ones: They more than doubled the legislation’s pork bill from $3 billion to $6.5 billion. When the Senate got to its version of the bill in September, it put in 936 earmarks amounting to $5.2 billion. Earlier this month, the House and Senate reconciled the differences between their two versions of the legislation and sent it to the president. It’s now law. Analysts are still sorting out the complete pork bill, but it already looks to be an amount higher than what either the House or Senate separately passed; after all, porking is an additive process.
Further, the pork process for defense spending will not be over if and when this new defense bill is enacted. There is still the supplemental spending Congress must pass to pay for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the congressional porkers have big plans there too. They include almost $3 billion for those additional C-17s the Pentagon says it doesn’t want, but which Sen. Boxer, and many others, will jam into the bill.
In toto, there is an excellent chance that Congress will top last year’s pork bill for defense spending. For fiscal year 2007, the Republican Congress enacted 2,646 defense earmarks for $10.5 billion. Given the course the Democratic “reform” Congress is on, that will be an easy mark to beat. Should this occur, it will be done in spite of the promise from both the House and Senate Democratic leadership to cut pork spending in half.
And what about bribes? That system is alive and well also. They will surely come from the appreciative corporations for the ever-compliant porkers. Payments in the form of used cars, furniture and women will be rare —- as has always been the case; payment in the form of campaign contributions will be routine. The only difference between the Cunningham form of payment and the latter is that Congress has deemed thank you payments in the form of cash to campaigns to be perfectly legal. After all, they write the laws.
There is a simple reason why Congress has not changed any fundamentals: Senators and representatives still see their political survival dependant on their ability to “bring home the bacon.” Any reduction in spending for a congressional district will be immediate grounds for a political attack in an election. Less pork will prompt an allegation that the member of Congress either “doesn’t care” or “can’t produce.” Sitting members are deathly afraid of any such attack and behave accordingly.
Those attacks will not just come from political opponents; they will also come from local media who keep track of such things. They will also come from the voters, who think that “bringing home the bacon” is a measure of a good representative.
In the final analysis, it is not the members of Congress we should attack for their phony reforms. They are only doing what they know we want them to do. When we change, they will.
Winslow T. Wheeler worked for Republican and Democratic senators and the Government Accountability Office over a 31 year career on Capitol Hill. He joined the Center for Defense Information in 2002. He is author of The Wastrels of Defense and a contributor to Dime’s Worth of Difference.
* CFR – campaign financing rules