Last year, congressional Democrats bemoaned the GOP's "culture of corruption." Rightly so, after 12 years holding the reins, Republican leaders had been corrupted by power. They encouraged their membership to burn through billions of taxpayers' dollars by passing "earmarks" to fund local pet projects with federal dollars. They neutered the ethics committee and got way too cozy with now-convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff. By November, two members -- Bob Ney of Ohio and Duke Cunningham of California -- had pleaded guilty, and American voters revolted by handing the leadership to Democrats.
To borrow from the rock band the Who: Meet the new boss, same as the old boss. As this new Congress goes into recess, the Democrats don't have the baggage of entrenched Repubs in 2006, but they are well on their way.
Last year, Rep. Nancy Pelosi promised to drain the GOP swamp and reform earmark spending. This year, the House speaker argued that the $22 billion extra that Democrats want to spend on top of the Bush administration's budget represents "a very small difference."
This so-called reform Congress hasn't matched Republicans on the earmark front yet, but the Democratic-led Congress is warming to earmarks.
The swamp isn't likely to be drained with Pelosi throwing her support behind Rep. Jack Murtha of Pennsylvania, a Prince of Earmarks who sponsored $163 million worth of earmarks in seven spending bills this year, according to Taxpayers for Common Sense.
Worse, the so-called Democratic reform that was supposed to discourage pork spending by making earmarks more transparent now seems likely to fuel the Dems' spending spree. Rep. Nancy Boyda, D-Kansas, told The New York Times, "My guess is that next year I'm going to be putting in more earmarks."
Over time, expect fewer Democrats to lament, as Rep. David Obey, D-Wis., did, that lawmakers have come to see themselves as "ATM machines for our districts."
As for the five-year $286-million pork-rich farm bill passed by the House, consider the words of Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Tenn., who told Roll Call that Pelosi "had to buck every editorial page in America on the farm bill" -- like that was a good thing.
Don't expect much fiscal responsibility from a Congress dedicated to hiding from the public the cost of its programs. At least the Senate energy bill raised fuel-efficiency standards to 35 miles per gallon for all cars by 2020.
But the House passed an energy bill that did not touch car mileage -- drivers and Detroit Dems might not like that -- while requiring that utilities produce 15 percent of their power from renewable sources by 2020. Brilliant. Voters will blame their higher energy bills not on Congress, but on utilities.
The House voted to expand federal health care for an additional 5 million children -- by taxing smokers an additional 45 cents per pack. Same as the old boss: More government, and you don't have to pay for it.
If Republicans sold out their constituents in promising less government, yet voting for more spending, Democrats also lack the courage of their convictions. When it comes to global warming, stopping the Bush administration's warrantless wiretapping and, of course, Iraq, they'll do what's expedient and not let their principles stand in the way.
And when they put their principles first, it's probably for a stunt. Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., plans to introduce a global-warming bill on Sept. 1 that would tax carbon emissions, end the mortgage tax deduction on big homes and boost the gasoline tax by 50 cents a gallon. The advantage: Only a huge tax increase of this order can cut greenhouse-gas emissions more than 50 percent, as supporters of the Kyoto global warming agreement argue needs to be done.
Everyone in Washington predicts Dingell's bill will go nowhere. Of course it will -- there is no way for Democrats to hide the cost.
The problem with the old R's is the problem with the new D's. Both parties only want to offer more something for everyone, with the promise that someone else will pay for it.
No wonder the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found that 24 percent of voters approve of the job this new-improved Congress is doing -- as opposed to President Bush's 31 percent approval rating.
So why the bipartisan grasping? Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., likes to say that "earmarks are the gateway drug that leads to spending addiction in Congress." It seems as though members of both parties either can't help themselves, or they are convinced bad governance is what voters want.
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