Last week there was a flurry of pretend ethics on Capitol Hill. The subject matter was eliminating earmarks (pork) in spending bills. Some outside observers were foolish enough to take seriously the protestations from Democrats and Republicans that they would reduce the torrent of pork on Capitol Hill. Others, some of them the elite prognosticators of must-read newspapers, opined that it was all an ignorable tempest in a teapot; not to be given “a disproportionate amount of attention” opined one Congress-gazing Pooh-Bah on a national radio interview show.
Far worse than the wishful thinkers expecting self-reform from either party in our current political system are those in a position to influence but fail to appreciate how thoroughly debased our political system has become. To understand why the latter are so misleading, we must first understand why the former are so foolish.
The Democrats were first out of the box proclaiming their earmark reform. No more would “for-profit entities,” also known as corporations, get earmarks. This, they tried to imply, would obviate corrupt campaign contributions to members of Congress in return for earmarkscontributions that Congress’ lawmaking authority has made legal for time immemorial.
There were a few teeny-weeny little loopholes they forgot to mention. There was no definition of “for profit entities,” which makes countless corporations eligible to receive earmarks. For example, of the 1,720 earmarks counted by Taxpayers for Common Sense in the 2010 Pentagon spending bill, all but a tiny handful will end up in the coffers of for-profit corporations, but because the nature of the recipient is left obscure in the text of public documents written by Congress many of them will not be affected.
That, however, was an insufficient loophole for the Democrats. The for-profit “ban” was announced only by the Democrats in the House of Representatives. The Senate Democrats, led by mega-porker Daniel Inouye of Hawaii, declined to participate. The separate announcements were stage managed to appear disconnected, but anyone who thinks they weren’t pre-coordinated hasn’t spent much time working on Capitol Hill, or even observing it closely. Under this new double-faced regime, any House Democrat looking to grease him- or her-self up with a too-obvious earmark for a business won’t write to the House Appropriations Committee for an earmark, they’ll write to their state’s senators. The senators, from either party, will surely be happy to jump into the sleaze, providedof coursethere will be a campaign contribution for them, as well as the House member.
The Republicans were a little smarter, but not much. Hard upon the House Democrats’ transparently limited “ban,” House Minority Leader John Boehner announced “an immediate, unilateral moratorium on all [yes, all] earmarks, including tax and tariff-related earmarks.” Wow! Pretty good. But as phony as a three dollar bill.
Not only did Boehner drop the bit about “tax and tariff-related earmarks” within twenty four hours, he also kept open the Senate escape valveand more. His moratorium was good only until the end of the year, but more importantly, Boehner also knew no one would have to wait that long.
When the Democrats sponsored a short lived moratorium on earmarks in 2007just after Nancy Pelosi took over and announced “the most honest, most open, and most ethical Congress in history”two new porking enterprises were started. The Democrats added a few “non-earmark earmarks” to the earmark-banned legislation in question, but more importantly, the electronic age blossomed for Capitol Hill porkers. In something called “phone-marking,” the members and staffers simply phoned, faxed, and e-mailed the earmarks directly to executive branch agencies, simultaneously making it clearof coursethat failure to spend appropriated sums as indicated will result in any of a variety of forms of retaliationjust as they do in the text of appropriations committee reports with routine earmarks.
The Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill actually barring themselves from the constituent- and campaign donator-pandering behavior of porking is about as likely as their denying themselves food and air. They know of no way to survive without it.
Which brings us to the Pooh-Bahs. Imagine a newspaper with a Congress expert so unknowing of the implications of the earmarking system that he deems it receiving a “disproportionate amount of attention.” The context of that assertion was that earmarks account for less than one percent of all federal spendingaccording to the conventional wisdom. Nothing could be more incorrect.
The earmarking system requires its congressional protagonists, and you, to be quite clueless about what they are doing. This reveals itself in the so-called “sunshine” that pretend reformers like House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and “Pork Buster” John McCain say they have forced onto the system. They required revelations of the nature and sponsors of earmarks, but note who identifies it all. The explanations are written by the congressional advocates of the earmarks, not any objective entity like the Government Accountability Office, and the lists of earmarks are compiled by the appropriations committees. We rely on the self-interested parties put the sunshine on their own behavior.
Moreover, the congressional advocates keep themselves dependent on the corporate beneficiaries of earmarks for the information they write in their “revelations.” For example, we hear porkers for items like the underperforming, over-cost C-17 transport aircraft describe it straight out of the Boeing brochure as “the reliable, easy-to-land on short runways, load ’em up, get ’em out, cheaper-to-fly C-17.” (To some of its crews, the C-17 is known as “FRED,” the last three words of which are “ridiculous economic disaster.”)
To appreciate fully how rotten and pervasive is the earmarking system, go to any so-called oversight hearing of the House or Senate Defense Appropriations Subcommittees. First, you will hear question after question designed to elicit favorable testimony from Pentagon witnesses about one pork project after another. Second, when the subject is not pork, you will be exposed to a thorough lesson on how not to get to the bottom of any anything. Questions will be read off; after a non-answer there will be no follow up, and everyone will leave the hearing happy.
In the few instances when I have observed real oversight on Capitol Hill during my 31 year career there, I have never seen an executive branch witness leave happy. Being exposed for screwing things up, ignoring statutes, wasting money, and worse does not make for a witness’ happy face on the way out. The pork system, however, requires both the member of Congress and the witness to be pals, agreed that the new pork morsel is just a wonderful idea, exactly what the troops need. Ripping the guts out of a Pentagon witness does not exactly grease the pork skids.
Oversight and pork don’t go together. As a result, programs costing the taxpayers scores of billions pass through the system with nothing more than a congressional stroking. The pork system is responsible for piles more than “only a fraction of a percent of overall spending,” as the Pooh-Bah opined on the radio.
The porkers on Capitol Hill are not going to reform themselves unless and until they get some adult supervision. That requires a higher standard than we now have for those assigned to watch over the political system and who purport to inform us what is going on and what is important.
|Winslow T. Wheeler is Director of the Straus Military Reform Project at the Center for Defense Information, Research Fellow at the Independent Institute, and author of the Independent Policy Report, Congress, the Defense Budget, and Pork: A Snout-to-Tail Description of Congress Foremost Concern in National Security Legislation.|