November 11, 2006

The Missing Earpiece

Hatched by Dafydd

Ladies and gents, this here post falls into that beloved category of What Is Wrong With This Picture? We seem to play that a lot on this blog.

Yesterday, AP rolled out the first of what will undoubtedly be a myriad of Democratic glorifications. This one was titled, humbly enough, Dems Pledge to Sever Ties to Lobbyists.

In it, the writer (Larry Margasak) gushes about the spanking new Democratic program (now that clean-government Democrats are in charge) to clean up the cesspool left by the "Republican culture of corruption" -- which was one of the major reasons the GOP lost control of both houses of Congress. Funnily enough, even in this paean to the new way, the elite media cannot help introducing a cynical note to mar the beauty of the symphony:

On Day 1 of the next session of Congress, newly empowered Democrats are promising restrictive rules to "break the link between lobbyists and legislation." The city's veteran lobbyists know what to expect on Day 2: requests for political donations from the Capitol's new stewards.

The divine Mrs. Pelosi, Speaker to Be, unveils the Democrats' Honest Leadership and Open Government program on the first day of the 110th Congress, January 3rd, 2007:

Fred Wertheimer, president of the ethics watchdog group Democracy 21, acknowledged there's no magic cure, but added: "There's a difference between doing nothing and doing something. We've got a real shot here of doing something important."

Pelosi says Democrats will end the culture that allowed one-time super lobbyist Jack Abramoff to hand out perks in return for lawmaker favors for his clients, and that led to the jailing of former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham, R-Calif., for accepting $2.4 million in bribes....

Abramoff faces a prison term, as do former congressional aides who worked for him and one of his lobbying targets, former Rep. Bob Ney, R-Ohio.

Several other lawmakers in both parties are being investigated by the Justice Department, and former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, has been indicted in his home state.

Here's one missing piece: nowhere does the story even mention Rep. William Jefferson (D-New Orleans, 85%), headed for a runoff with the number two vote getter -- another Democrat; a search of Mr. Jefferson's home found about $90,000 of cold, hard cash hidden in his freezer. But that's not the missing piece I meant; that's just garden mill media bias.

So what does the program do? The enthusiastic AP tells us (here is where you come in; please read this list and see if you can detect what is the missing piece):

  • "Ban gifts and travel paid for by lobbyists;"
  • "Double, to two years, the time in which lawmakers and senior officials are barred from lobbying their former offices;"
  • "Force lobbyists to disclose more of their activities;"
  • "Shut down efforts like the Republican 'K Street Project' - a forced alliance with lobbying firms, named for the Washington street that is home to many lobbying offices;"
  • "Require lawmakers to disclose when they are negotiating for private-sector jobs;"
  • "Require House-Senate conferences to be open to the public;"
  • "And subject government contracts to public disclosure and aggressive competition."

So what piece is missing from this enumeration?

Let's take a brief detour: we know what the politician gets out of the contact: loot. The lobbyist funnels a bunch of campaign contributions to the pol, or donations to the Clinton Library, or whatnot. This can add up to a lot of lettuce -- millions of dollars in the case of Cunningham, for example.

Now, we assume the lobbyists (and the special interests they represent) aren't the generous sort. They're not giving away bucks and perks for free! So what do they get in return? What would be so valuable to a corporation, say, that they would be willing to spend several hundred thousand dollars of squeeze to get it?

The payback, of course, is in government expenditures inserted into public bills which go to private corporations for purely private purposes. In a word, earmarks.

Where, Mrs. P., in that laundry list of anti-corruption measures, is the ban on earmarks?

If earmarks were banned, that would probably take care of most of the corruption... which is, of course, equal opportunity between both parties. After all, nobody is going to bribe a congressman if the congressman cannot funnel public funds into the briber's pocket. Jack Abramoff was called many vile epithets, but never a philanthropist... at least, not unless it would drum up some more business.

In fact, it probably wouldn't even be necessary to ban earmarks: a law making all earmarks public record, with a database accessible by anybody through the internet, would have much the same effect: very few senators or representatives are ballsy enough to let the whole world know who is bribing them and how much taxpayer money they're skimming in return.

If you thought charges of a "culture of corruption" were effective last Tuesday, imagine if every challenger in every state and district of the Union had access to a complete list of every dirty deal his incumbent opponent conducted in the past term -- and which slimy special-interest group got the benefit of the fellow's undivided attention!

That would be a novel and exciting thing for the Democrats to propos. Oh, wait -- the Republicans already enacted just such a sunshine policy for earmarks in the 109th Congress. The House passed a rules change on September 14th that requires listing all earmark sponsors in the Congressional Record. (Captain Ed Morrissey has been the go-to blogger on this important subject.)

Earmark reform has been a special project of Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK, 100%) for many months now. He couldn't get a bill to ban them or even shine the light of day on them through the Senate; but he did manage to team up with Barak Obama and pass an actual bill creating the Coburn-Obama database; the bill was passed by both houses of Congress and signed into law by the president.

But wait, don't pop that cork just yet. The Coburn-Obama database covers spending by the federal administration -- the executive branch -- not special spending by Congress itself; although we would be able to search a database of executive-branch expenditures, there would be no link posted to the individual representatives or senators who inserted such payoffs... thus, no way to use this database to expose pork-chomping earmarkers.

And the new House policy of exposing earmarks was just a rules change, not a law.

Whenever a new session of Congress begins, the majority typically incorporates the previous rules by voice vote; but it isn't required to do so. In this case, there is reason to doubt the zeal of Mrs. P. and her partisans for this particular program... given that she and the rest of the Democratic leadership, along with most of the Democrats, voted resoundingly against it by more than 3-1 when the Republicans forced it through. From Captain's Quarters:

The vote shows who on the Hill gets the new paradigm, and who still lives in the passing age of pork. Democrats voted 147-45 to defeat the new rule, and that included their leadership. Among those opposing the identification of earmarks are Nancy Pelosi, Sheila Jackson-Lee, Patrick Kennedy, Tom Lantos, Dennis Kucinich, John Conyers, Betty McCollum, Allan Mollohan, Barney Frank, Henry Waxman, and Ike Skelton, some of whom have been named as committee chairs if the Democrats retake control of the House this fall. Alcee Hastings voted to continue the practice of secret earmarking, no surprise given his impeachment for bribery that removed him from the federal judiciary, and the Democrats want to put him in charge of the Intelligence Committee. Jane Harman, the ranking Democrat on the committee now, voted to support the rule.

In contrast, only 24 Republicans voted against the rule, and all but two of those are appropriators. Twelve GOP appropriators voted for reform, however, including Ray LaHood, a surprise supporter of the rule.

So we have a law that creates a database of the administration's spending, but not Congress's; and we have a strong committment to shining a spotlight on earmark bribery, but only a rules change that can be changed back with a simple majority on January 3rd.

Given Nancy Pelosi's vote against the rule in the first place, and given that there is no mention of doing anything about earmarks as part of the Mrs. Pelosi's Honest Leadership and Open Government program, I think it better than even odds that Captain Ed's joy will be short lived: the Democrats will likely do away with the new rule, quietly and without comment by the antique media, on the same day they introduce their new, improved replacement... which doesn't include any public disclosure of earmarks.

Now, I want to be totally fair about this. One of the planks of Mrs. Pelosi's program could perhaps be stretched to cover this most invidious legal bribery. It's the last one:

  • "And subject government contracts to public disclosure and aggressive competition."

But I'm dubious. Why not just use the word "earmarks," which everybody already knows?

There are thousands of contracts awarded by the government every year; but when someone says "government contracts," he usually means the huge ones worth billions of dollars. I think I'm not going too far out on a limb by suggesting that incoming Squeaker of the House Nancy Pelosi actually has in mind all those contracts awarded to, ah, Halliburton Energy Services and its subsidiaries, such as KBR (née Kellogg Brown and Root).

Earmarks, by contrast, are often inserted in the dead of night, after a bill has been passed by both House and Senate, during or after the joint conference; the final bill voted on by the two bodies is typically made available to the members only a day or so before the vote... and 24 hours is very little time to read a 3,000-page transportation bill to locate the $12,000,000 allocation for a Grateful Dead museum in San Francisco, or $30,000,000 for a Steve Wynn Library in Las Vegas, or whatever else was slipped in by wily legislators.

If the Democrats had meant to curtail earmarks, they would have mentioned them by name, rather than use such nebulous circumlocutions as "government contracts." Heck, they don't even say "all government contracts!"

When this bill hits the floor on January 3rd... wouldn't it be a blast if Republicans in both houses were ready with an instant amendment to incorporate the House's original earmark sunshine policy into federal law? That way, no future House could simply brush it aside, changing the rules back to where they were before.

I would almost die laughing as I watched the Democrats' contortions, while they try to explain why Mrs. Pelosi's Honest Leadership and Open Government program could not include the anti-earmark rules change that Nancy Pelosi and 77% of House Democrats tried to kill in the first place.

Hatched by Dafydd on this day, November 11, 2006, at the time of 6:49 AM

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» Has Nancy Pelosi Changed Her Mind About Ears? from Big Lizards
Incoming Squeaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco, 95%), who led the failed Democratic resistance against the Republican House rule requiring full disclosure of members of Congress who sponsor earmarks (which includes Nancy Pelosi), now want... [Read More]

Tracked on November 13, 2006 7:56 PM

» The Democrats Are All Ears from Big Lizards
In two previous posts, we discussed how incoming Squeaker of the House Nancy "Most Ethical Congress In History" Pelosi isn't quite living up to her mantra anent the "culture of corruption" in Congress, especially regarding earmarks: The Missing Earpiec... [Read More]

Tracked on November 18, 2006 5:24 PM

» Earmarks? No No... Phonemarks! from Big Lizards
In a stunning piece -- stunning that it appeared in the Washington Post, I mean, not stunning in what it reports -- John Solomon and Jeff Birnbaum ("the Mustache" from Brit Hume's Special Report roundtable) confirm what we've been seeing... [Read More]

Tracked on May 25, 2007 8:43 PM

» The Power of the Big Idea: O'Billery Reduced to "Me Too!" from Big Lizards
Previous posts in our series about Congress, the Democrats, the Republicans, and earmarks: The Missing Earpiece Has Nancy Pelosi Changed Her Mind About Ears? The Democrats Are All Ears Earmarks? No No... Phonemarks! They're All Ears... Again If Barack ... [Read More]

Tracked on March 10, 2008 7:39 PM

» Traders to the Cause - Republicans Are All Ears from Big Lizards
In 2006, incoming Squeaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-Haight-Ashbury, 100%) infamously promised that the Democrats would run "the most honest, most open and most ethical Congress in history." When President Barack H. Obama ran for president two years... [Read More]

Tracked on March 12, 2010 3:22 PM

» So Comfortable in Corruption, They Needn't Even Dissemble from Big Lizards
The brazenness of Democrats is sometimes breathtaking: Defense contractors who openly discussed a suspected pay-to-play scheme in e-mails released by congressional ethics investigators had ties to a powerful lobbying firm and won millions of dollars in... [Read More]

Tracked on June 22, 2010 3:10 PM


The following hissed in response by: Cowgirl

I love it!

I think you are on to something here. This could actually end up being fun if we could just convince the elected GOP to play along.

The above hissed in response by: Cowgirl [TypeKey Profile Page] at November 11, 2006 10:37 AM

The following hissed in response by: nk

Nope. Sorry.

I don't like bribes. That's a given.

Also, I want my government to be a lean, mean governing machine, paying its workers as little as I pay my gardeners.

BUT, I want to live in America, not Bangladesh. Give me beautifully landscaped smooth as silk highways. A bridge that for you goes nowhere but for me cuts 30 seconds off my travel time, and impresses the heck out of my sister-in-law when she visits.

Anyway. My Congressman lives three houses away from me. (I think I know what to say here but I am not a writer.) He is there to make the America we, the 500,000 in his distict, want. Not to give us some gray, minimalist, Brezhnev Soviet Union-style, barebones, generic, "satisfy-the-selfish-jerks-who-only-want-to-drive-on-roads-taxes-built-but-not-pay-taxes" dead end of a country. (I think I said it.)

The above hissed in response by: nk [TypeKey Profile Page] at November 11, 2006 1:07 PM

The following hissed in response by: nk

P.S. I really cannot see the difference between a country which cannot produce enough to support its defense, infrastructure and standard of living and a country which is not willing to spend enough to support its defense, infrastructure and standard of living. (Did I say it better this time?)

The above hissed in response by: nk [TypeKey Profile Page] at November 11, 2006 1:21 PM

The following hissed in response by: snochasr

The fundamental problem is that I do not get anywhere near the value of your "bridge to nowhere" that would justify my (and every other taxpayer) paying for it. You shouldn't be allowed to slip a few bucks under the table so your Congresscritter can slip a few million bucks worth of worthless pork by the rest of 'em. Heck of a good return on investment, for you, and a pitifully poor way to run a government.

You need a bridge to nowhere? Get together with your neighbors and those who will benefit from using it, and build it! Leave federal money for those things that provide the greatest benefit for all.

The above hissed in response by: snochasr [TypeKey Profile Page] at November 11, 2006 9:01 PM

The following hissed in response by: nk


I don't know that we really disagree. I believe in the greatest good for the greatest number as you seem to. Nonetheless, I think that our representative democracy is a pretty good system. Representatives who balance the common good with the individual good. Altruism with selfishness. "Momentary interests" with a legacy for our posterity. That they should argue, fight and cheat -- well ... we, their constituents, do it too. And my main point .. as long as it results in us living in the greatest country with the highest standard of living in the history of the world I tolerate it and even applaud it.

The above hissed in response by: nk [TypeKey Profile Page] at November 11, 2006 9:25 PM

The following hissed in response by: Bill Faith

Good catch,Dafydd. Excerpted and linked. It's gonna be a long two years.

The above hissed in response by: Bill Faith [TypeKey Profile Page] at November 11, 2006 10:42 PM

The following hissed in response by: snochasr

I guess I am fundamentally unconvinced that every tax dollar spent is spent wisely and well. Therefore, spending anything more, on anything, is foolish until we clean up the existing mess. Most new initiatives could be paid out of the waste in those things the government does poorly, or should not be doing at all.

The above hissed in response by: snochasr [TypeKey Profile Page] at November 12, 2006 7:47 AM

The following hissed in response by: Big D

Earmarks are the lifeblood of politics.

However, earmarks are not always, I would say frequently, not meant for a particular lobbyist, but as payoff for the voters. Without them, there will no longer be an easy measure of how each politician is doing.

Maybe an alternative would be to give each congressman a set amount of swag to spend around his district. Maybe $20 million? But don't you dare ask for a penny more.

The real problem is that the Federal government is involved in too many things. There are expectations that the feds will pay for anything and everything. Can anyone tell me why we have HUD? A Dept. of Education?

By the by, the bridge to now where. Catchy phrase, but you all should really look into the history of that bridge before casting stones. In Alaska people think the idea pretty nifty and useful, with only the slightest whiff of pork barrel politics.

In many cases earmarks is the only way small states (like Alaska) can get any of the federal spending they need.

The above hissed in response by: Big D [TypeKey Profile Page] at November 13, 2006 9:46 AM

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