It looks like a scene out of an old movie: one about shady politicians and back-room deals. You can almost smell the cigar smoke and see the dirty money changing hands.
But unfortunately, it’s not an old film. It’s a real-life picture of the United States Congress. The cigars are gone, but the dirty deal-making is thoroughly up-to-date. And at the head of it is Rep. John Murtha (D) of Pennsylvania.
As the New York Times put it this week, Murtha has operated a “political trading post in a back corner of the House of Representatives.” Earmarks are expenditures that bypass the budgeting process and earn approval without debate. Many are infamous—like Alaska’s “bridge to nowhere.”
On a typical day, according to the Times, “a gang of about two dozen Democrats mill around [Murtha’s] seat. A procession of others walk back to request pet spending projects.” Republicans come by, too, hoping to convince Murtha to enlist Democrats “to join them on close votes.”
As the Times puts it, “As the top Democrat on the House military spending subcommittee, [Murtha] often delivers Democratic votes to Republican leaders in a tacit exchange for earmarks for himself and his allies.” Whether lawmakers are looking for votes or a piece of pork, “Nobody ever leaves completely disappointed,” says one member.
Earmarks waste a whopping $64 billion a year, and they corrupt lawmakers, bribing them “to vote for a piece of legislation they wouldn’t ordinarily give two minutes to,” according to another member.
They also allow special-interest groups to put a stranglehold on our political system. But Murtha is unapologetic about what he does. “Deal making is what Congress is all about,” he says.
Come on! This “Let’s Make a Deal” approach makes Congress look more like a tobacco auction than a legislative body. It reminds me of the system in England from which the term rotten borough originated. The slave traders literally bought members of Parliament. It’s what William Wilberforce fought against. And so should we.
Congress and the press are in an uproar to throw out Congressman Foley (R-Fla.). Good. But don’t let it serve as a smokescreen to keep attention away from a much bigger corruption. Now, Murtha may think Congress is about deal-making, but our founders knew it was supposed to be about advancing the common good. In “Federalist Paper No. 10,” James Madison identified the critical question for any society: How do you assure that private factions do not undermine the public good?
The founders built into the Constitution checks and balances “to pit ambition against ambition and make it impossible for any elements of government to obtain unchecked power.” This is precisely what we see in earmarks.