The Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal has Congress scrambling to drum up reform ideas, as the profligates attempt to repackage themselves as neo-Puritans. Most of these efforts, no doubt, will involve tinkering with the minutiae of lobbying rules, as if sinning lobbyists, rather than saintly members of Congress, are the problem.
An even bigger mess likely will result, as our unfortunate experience with campaign finance reform suggests. A clunky and convoluted system will be made more so, as the First Amendment takes another hit. But the litmus test of Congress’ commitment to change will be whether its reform proposals focus on the K Street corridor, where the lobbyists lurk, or closer to home, on Congress itself.
No real reform is possible until Congress addresses the irresponsible way it handles the federal purse strings, which licenses members to plunder the U.S. Treasury with near impunity. Reduce the temptation to dip into the pork-barrel and you remove one of the primary reasons members are lobbied so hard. At least a few members of Congress seem willing to confront the issue squarely. But the power to pig out on pork won’t be given up without some squealing.
U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn, a Republican from Oklahoma, is among those calling on colleagues to make pork-barrel control a key component of any reform effort, pointing out that Abramoff once described appropriations committees as “earmark favor factories” on which lobbyists should focus.
Coburn believes the 14,000 pet projects Congress approved last year will help average Americans “connect the dots” between lobbying abuses and fiscal malfeasance. “Congress does not need to reform the lobbying industry as much as it needs to reform itself,” Coburn recently. “The willingness of politicians to abuse the appropriations process through earmarking has caused the explosive growth in the lobbying industry and encouraged the excesses illustrated by the Abramoff scandal. It is not enough for our leaders to propose reforms that might promote the appearance, but not necessarily the practice, of ethical behavior.”
Coburn is a member of the so-called Gang of Seven, which includes Sens. John McCain, Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., John Ensign, R-Nev. and Sam Brownback, R-Kan. The group has pledged to force “extended debate” on pork-barrel projects during deliberations on future spending bills. McCain is reportedly planning to incorporate anti-earmarking provisions in a reform package he is crafting with Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum.
A group in the House also is working on bills that would bring more transparency and accountability to the appropriations process. But Republican leaders seem wary. In a Dec. 28 memo, Senate Majority leader Bill Frist said the practice of earmarking should “be mended, not ended.” And House Speaker Dennis Hastert had an even more revealing response: “That’s what members do. I mean, they represent their districts. They take cases to Congress and say that, ‘we need this,’ or, ‘I need help here,’ or, ‘I believe that this issue should move forward.’”
So that’s what it’s come to — the congressperson’s primary function reduced to bringing home the bacon. We don’t have a problem with members bringing federal dollars back to their states or districts, as long as that spending serves a recognizable national interest and goes through the established appropriations process. But members routinely take shortcuts, sidestepping the vetting process, and lard legislation with add-ons that are not national priorities.
“Pork politics is not an ancient practice that can’t be reformed,” Coburn said. “Pork as we know it today didn’t exist 20 years ago. As the majority party, my fellow Republicans have to make a choice — our majority or our pork.”
Earmarks are only part of the problem. Congress’ power to influence executive branch agencies, manipulate the tax code and anoint regulatory winners and losers also helps explain the symbiotic relationship between lobbyists and members. Washington’s virtual monopoly on control, power and money is the greatest corrupter of all, and until Americans confront that reality, and do something about de-powering and de-funding Washington as much as possible, the potential for abuses will persist.