Washington's latest landmark betrayal

Paul Jacob

8/5/2007 12:00:08 AM - Paul Jacob

Chalk up another landmark achievement for congressional Democrats — last week they passed an ethics and lobbying "reform" bill. Or so we're told.

"What we did today was momentous. It's historic," declared Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) after the vote of 411 to 8.

The Washington Post called it "a landmark bill."

When the U.S. Senate passed the bill, sending it to the president, Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) dubbed it the "most sweeping ethics and lobbying reform in history," saying it would produce "a government as good and honest as the people it represents."

Is he serious? Can this new law make a rotten Congress "good"? Or honest? Does any sane person really believe that?

Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) sure doesn't. As the Senate's biggest supporter of transparency regarding earmarks and the strongest opponent of such pork in the first place, he has standing.

"This bill is a landmark betrayal, not a landmark accomplishment," Coburn declared after its passage. "Congress had a historic opportunity to expose secretive pork-barrel spending but instead created new ways to hide that spending."

Coburn points out a number of ways the original legislation was gutted:

• The bill was changed to make earmark disclosure voluntary rather than mandatory.
• The requirement of 67 Senate votes to suspend the earmark disclosure rule was changed to 40 votes — less than a majority.
• The language prohibiting a member or staff from promoting earmarks they would personally benefit from was completely eviscerated.
• So was the language prohibiting a member from trading votes for earmarks.
• The requirement that earmarks be put on the Internet 48 hours after their inclusion in legislation was changed to "as soon as practical."
• The non-partisan Senate parliamentarian was replaced by the majority leader as the referee determining whether earmark disclosure requirements are met.
• The bill also weakened other elements of disclosure and transparency.

As the Washington Examiner editorialized, "There are a few positive provisions in the bill, but the bottom line is that it is stuffed with cosmetic changes that fail to address the core issues of congressional corruption spawned by earmarks."

Who could be surprised? It's a familiar paradox: Once again "reform" passes in Washington with those most reform-minded expressing unhappiness while those least so minded demonstrating paroxysms of ecstatic joy. Golly, I wonder why?

It comes down to one's perspective. If you're a career politician, you see earmarks as a way to turn a portion of the federal budget into a favor-producing, fundraising little enterprise. Had Dale Carnegie been unethical, he'd no doubt have suggested earmarks as a great way to "win friends and influence people."

Sure, the power-seeking politician recognizes the unpopularity of pork-barrel spending, the wastefulness. But, you see, the politician benefits. He or she grows more powerful with each big check sent to some people using others' money. So the politician embraces reform, yes; talks reform, sure; even passes reform, of course . . . but makes very certain that there is no reform.

If you're a regular, everyday citizen (or a citizen-legislator like Coburn), on the other hand, you see earmarks as blatantly wasteful spending performed in as corrupting a method as imaginable this side of treason. As Senator Coburn put it:

Earmarks have been at the heart of recent scandals that have sent members of Congress to prison and brought others under investigation. It is no coincidence that as the lobbying industry doubled in size since 2000 so did the amount of money Congress spent on earmarks. The problem in Washington is not the lobbyists. The problem is members of Congress who send earmarks to special interests, and even family members, in an effort to stay in office or feather their own nest.

Last year at this time, the Republican Congress sported an approval rating of 19 percent. The public loathing Republicans engendered stemmed in no small part from their business-as-usual (or even business-run-amok) attitude toward pork. And voters sent enough of them packing last November to snatch away their majority status. (I have heard few regrets expressed.)

Thus one might expect voters to be more appreciative of this relatively new Democratic Congress — especially with all their landmark legislation. One would be mistaken. The Democratic Congress recently garnered a five-point lower approval rating than the vanquished old Republican Congress. The Democrats' 14 percent approval rating is, in fact, the lowest in the history of the Gallup Poll, which began back in 1973.

The American people aren't fooled. The Democrats refusal to enact real reform is only one more exhibit of a sick political system. Given a way to choose something other than the career politician-dominated system, the people will do so in a New York minute.

U.S. Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma identifies earmarks as "the gateway drug to federal spending addiction." A Washington Examiner editorial recently compared the behavior of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid on the ethics legislation to "an addict condemning drugs as he heads to the back room to shoot up again."

Well, I guess it's nice to know there's no longer smoke in those back rooms. Some reform.