Cover Story


"Money-go-round" Continued...

Issue: "Snakepit," Feb. 11, 2006

With the leadership question now settled, Republicans must come through on promised reforms-or face near-certain congressional losses in November. A loss of only 15 seats in the House would flip control to Democrats.

Mr. McCain already has teamed with Mr. Flake to sponsor the Obligation of Funds Transparency Act. The legislation would make earmarks more visible, subject each project to an amendment process, and require each earmark to be included in the text of spending bills.

An earmark designates spending for a specific project. Some earmarks are debated in and appear in a bill's text. But the vast majority are neither vetted nor voted upon, but are appended during conference committee sessions after bills pass House and Senate chambers. Simply put, these earmarks pay for legislators' pork-barrel projects-or repay lobbyists and their clients for their generosity.

Between fiscal years 1995 and 2005, total federal spending ballooned from $1.5 trillion to $2.5 trillion, an increase of 67 percent. During that time the number of pork-barrel earmarks zoomed from 1,400 to 14,000, according to watchdog group Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW).

The McCain-Flake reform bill would enable members of Congress to challenge individual earmarks during floor debates and force lawmakers to justify pet expenditures. That alone might cut back on such porcine projects as the $500,000 "Arctic Winter Games" on the Kenai Peninsula that Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) tucked into a military supply bill.

Among the lawmakers calling for fewer earmarks and more fiscal responsibility is Sen. Tom Coburn, who forced a showdown over pork last October. With the Senate searching for relief dollars after Hurricane Katrina, Mr. Coburn, a square-shouldered Oklahoma Republican, proposed killing a $223 million project that would connect an Alaskan town of 8,000 with a virtually uninhabited island.

Mr. Coburn argued that the money would be better spent on rebuilding the storm-ravaged Twin Span bridge, a critical eastward link that carries Interstate 10 traffic from New Orleans to Slidell, La. Pork-lovers weren't listening: Only 13 senators, including Mr. McCain, voted to kill the now-infamous "Bridge to Nowhere."

While Mssrs. Coburn, McCain, and others have focused on earmark reform, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist in early January instructed Pennsylvania Republican Rick Santorum to draft a bill that would rein in lobbying abuses. Mr. Abramoff has for the moment given the entire lobbying industry a black eye. But CAGW president Tom Schatz points out that lobbying is a legitimate enterprise, protected by the Constitution as Americans' right to "petition the government for a redress of grievances." Still, reform is definitely in order, he said.

The number of lobbyists on Capitol Hill has doubled to 35,000 over the past decade. "One of the functions of lobbying and lobbyists is to get earmarks," said Mr. Keating of the Club for Growth. "Duke Cunningham is going to jail in part because he was trying to earmark funding for a particular contract in exchange for lining his own pockets."

Legislative and procedural efforts at lobby reform have already begun. In a lopsided 379-50 vote on Feb. 1, the House voted to ban congressmen-turned-lobbyists from using the members-only House gym in the Capitol catacombs. That means no more lobbying in the locker room. The vote also bans former members of Congress from the House floor. On Dec. 16, Sen. McCain introduced a lobby-reform proposal that, among other things, would make it more difficult for former lawmakers to become lobbyists and prohibit lobbyists from paying for trips for lawmakers and congressional staff.

Democrats, eager to capitalize on public dissatisfaction with recent GOP malfeasance, are offering reform proposals that include banning all gifts from lobbyists. But while efforts to rein in lobbyists are important-"as can be deduced from the fact that the lobbying industry is already lobbying against them," The Economist noted in January-neither lobbying nor earmark reform touches on the third rail of reform: campaign finance.

Political campaign donors have historically-and legally-contributed to candidates who they thought could deliver legislative benefits. Still, such links of late have increasingly taken on a quid-pro-quo aspect. For example, at least 33 lawmakers who received donations from Mr. Abramoff's clients also wielded pro-Abramoff influence on a project aimed at blocking the development of a casino that would have competed with one owned by the Coushatta Tribe.

Among those legislators was Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), who received $66,000 between 2001 and 2004. On March 5, 2002, Mr. Reid sent a letter to Interior Secretary Gale Norton opposing the new casino, a position his office now says was consistent with Mr. Reid's general opposition to Indian casinos-and not related in any way to the $5,000 donation he received from the Coushattas the following day.


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