Congress: Up to Its Ears in Earmarks

While most of the country has been discussing immigration, Republicans in Congress have been making fools of themselves debating which earmarks they’re willing to own up to.

This is the issue that reportedly brought Speaker Dennis Hastert to his knees in the Republican Conference, begging his colleagues for support.

Yes, would they admit to each other who was sponsoring special hurricane relief of $500 million for Northrup Grumman, or spending $700 million to move a railroad that had already been rebuilt, or spending $15 million to encourage people to eat seafood?

Earmarks are the special interest goodies added to bills to benefit a particular person (no, not one of us) or company, one that usually has a relationship with the lawmaker who makes this wonderful gesture for him or her. This is how Washington works, and if you have a good lawyer and a good lobbyist, it’s all legal. It’s only when people get stupid, or ridiculously greedy, like lobbyist Jack Abramoff or Rep. Duke Cunningham, that you get a scandal, and Congress is under pressure to "reform" the system.

This year’s "reform" bill is among the most pitiful ever, as members of Congress are reduced to their most childish mode.

For instance, privately funded travel is banned – until after the election. Then everybody’s off to Scotland to golf. You can still provide the corporate jet to the congressman if he pays you first class airfare — but the lobbyist can’t ride with him.

Here’s the catch though: the CEO, and everybody but the lobbyist, can fly with the congressman. So the lobbyist goes commercial, and everybody else makes the pitch. You can’t buy the congressman and his staff a steak dinner at a restaurant, but you can sponsor a steak dinner for 500 in his honor at the Convention, host a fundraiser for him, and collect a stack of checks for his campaign committee.

So he pays for his own steak, or his campaign committee does. So what? How dumb do they think we are?

The Democrats won’t vote for the bill because they think it’s a sham, and also, probably, because they are looking for an election year issue. That leaves Hastert in the position where he needs unity to pass anything. But the conservatives actually want to do more to reform the system than the entrenched committee chairman and appropriators— who get most of the goodies and give them out— do.

As John McCain likes to say, there are three parties in Congress: Republicans, Democrats, and appropriators. Guess which one is most powerful?

That’s what has been causing the latest round of fighting. The bill was written to only restrict earmarks in appropriations bills and not tax bills which the appropriators said wasn’t fair; they wanted to hold onto their earmarks, and if they couldn’t, they said the tax writers shouldn’t get theirs either.

Most people said that was an effort to kill the whole move to restrict earmarks, but that remains to be seen; for the time being, the Speaker, on political hands and knees, promised the chairman of Appropriations that if any earmarks are restricted, they all will be.

Not eliminated mind you. No one is going that far. Heavens no. And it’s still an open question whether the Senate will go along with whatever restrictions the House approved when it comes time for the two to get together. The Senate is up to its ears in earmarks as well.

If all this sounds like a bunch of kids trying to hold on to their special perks, it’s worth asking why.

Most people don’t go to Congress so they can hang out with lobbyists, fly around on private planes, dole out special favors, and collects piles of money. They go thinking they’re going to accomplish something for their district and their country. They’re actually mostly decent people, until they get there. Then two things happen.

The first is that they become overcome by the desire to stay there. The second is that they become convinced that money is the key to doing so.

There’s nothing wrong with wanting to keep your job, if the way you do that is by doing that job well. But in Washington, that isn’t exactly how the game is played. The most basic rule is you keep your job by building a war chest.

And who is going to give you a chest full of money but people who are getting something in exchange?

Now, since most members of Congress come from relatively or completely safe districts, from which reelection is all but certain, you might ask why they need a war chest. That’s where the millionaire’s fantasy comes in to play.

It’s not a fantasy about getting rich but about facing someone even richer than you are in an election. One of the loopholes that the Supreme Court has recognized in any system of campaign finance regulation allows people to spend unlimited amounts of their own money on their own campaigns.

Being rich doesn’t guarantee you victory (just ask Steve Forbes, who spent millions running for president, or my friend Al Checchi, who spent millions running for Governor of California), but that’s no answer to the nightmare. Virtually every member has one about a multimillionaire being recruited to run against him, reaching into their deep pockets, and giving him or her a run for their money. Literally.

What’s to prevent it? Having more money of your own. Deterrence, as it were. How do you raise it? Do you need to ask?

The House passed the lobby bill Wednesday, and you can expect the Senate will be passing them. Talk about coordination. Northrup Grumman? Moving the railroad that’s already been rebuilt? Right from this week’s Senate agenda.

And you know who pays for that? Just look in the mirror.

Susan Estrich is currently the Robert Kingsley Professor of Law and Political Science at the University of Southern California and a member of the Board of Contributors of USA Today. She writes the "Portia" column for American Lawyer Media and is a contributing editor of The Los Angeles Times. She was appointed by the president to serve on the National Holocaust Council and by the mayor of the City of Los Angeles to serve on that city's Ethics Commission.

Estrich's books include "Real Rape," "Getting Away with Murder: How Politics is Destroying the Criminal Justice System," "Dealing with Dangerous Offenders," "Making the Case for Yourself: A Diet Book for Smart Women" and "Sex & Power," currently a Los Angeles Times bestseller.

She served as campaign manager for Michael Dukakis' presidential bid, becoming the first woman to head a U.S. presidential campaign. Estrich appears regularly on the Fox News Channel.

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