Northern Exposure

John Fund

8/7/2007 10:48:28 AM - John Fund

Republicans faced a time for choosing last week, when Senate Democrats brought to the floor an ethics "reform" bill that may make it easier for Congress to dole out pork-barrel spending. In the words of GOP Sen. Tom Coburn, the bill "not only failed to drain the swamp, but gave the alligators new rights."

Rather than block the legislation and insist on better reforms, image-sensitive Republicans largely backed the bill.

Have they learned anything? They lost control of Congress last year in no small measure because the GOP had become identified with the culture of pork-barrel spending, frittering away the American people's former confidence in them on fiscal issues.

If 34 Senate Republicans had united and voted against the bill, Democrats would have been forced to draw up more meaningful reforms. They might even have forced Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to accept the very "sunshine" provisions the Senate unanimously adopted in January--so at least the public would know who is doling out pork. But when it came down to it, only 17 voted for prolonging debate on the bill.

The bill the rest voted for had been gutted: Disclosing an earmark is now voluntary (not mandatory), protecting an earmark requires only 41 votes (instead of 67), and the power to determine whether a spending provision inserted by a senator is officially considered an earmark will now be up to . . . Mr. Reid.

The latest Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll finds Democrats lead Republicans by 16 points on controlling government spending and by nine points on taxes. The Republicans have their work cut out for them if they want to win back public confidence; but their behavior on the ethics bill shows they still don't get it.

And then came one of those coincidences that can sometimes become a turning point in politics. At nearly the same time the earmark reforms were voted on in the Senate, the FBI was in Alaska raiding the home of Sen. Ted Stevens--a senior Republican--looking for evidence of whether he diverted earmarks to benefit his son and business partners. If you thought Jack Abramoff was a symbol of Washington sleaze, just wait to see what happens if Mr. Stevens is further embroiled in scandal.

There's no question that Mr. Stevens is an aggressive pork barreler. The main airport in Anchorage is named after him and in 2005 he championed funds to build the now-infamous "Bridge to Nowhere" (actually, it was to build a $223 million bridge to an island with 50 people on it). He became the butt of jokes and stories surfaced about his ties to Bill Allen, then CEO of the oil-services giant VECO.

An FBI probe of VECO led to several indictments and a raid last year of the offices of Ben Stevens, Mr. Stevens's son (who was at the time president of the Alaska state senate). Meanwhile, Don Young, Alaska's only member of the U.S. House of Representatives and former chairman of the Transportation Committee, is under federal investigation for his own ties to VECO.

Mr. Allen recently pleaded guilty to bribing state legislators and is cooperating with authorities. The raid on Mr. Stevens's house is linked to more than $100,000 of renovation work done on that dwelling that was overseen by Mr. Allen. Mr. Stevens insists "we paid every bill that was given to us with our own money."

Privately, many Republican senators believe Mr. Stevens may be forced to retire next year. "The suspicions are great," one GOP senator told me. "He's toast. You start out thinking you are representing your state and you take one step after another until suddenly you're primarily representing your friends in the state." That's a path many others in Congress have trod--which is why real earmark reform is necessary now.

Of course, it's not just the Senate. Over in the House several Republicans face investigations over earmarks, including former Appropriations Chairman Jerry Lewis of California.

But if pork remains part of the GOP governing model, it's one that voters are starting to reject. In exit polls last year, those who actually showed up to vote reported that political corruption was a more important issue than the war in Iraq. In Alaska, where they have seen incumbent Republican arrogance up close, voters last year sent GOP Gov. Frank Murkowski packing. Upstart Sarah Palin defeated him in a primary by a wide margin and then won in the fall. Her approval ratings now top 90%. Her secret is that she won over voters by campaigning against corruption within her own party--much as Nicolas Sarkozy was able to do in France.

Last week, Republican senators misread the Stevens scandal as a signal they had to back a symbolic--but in truth a sham--ethics bill. President Bush, who has the advantage of not facing voters again, has called its earmark provisions "worthless." He should veto the bill. He may be overridden, but he will do Republicans a favor by forcing them to rethink their attachment to an earmark culture that is both destructive of honest budgeting and politically dangerous because of the inherent corruption it creates.