[Breaker — If good men do nothing…]
More and more the very term "Congressional ethics" appears
to be an oxymoron. Recent examples of corruption are mounting in number
and excess – and both Republicans and Democrats are involved.
A former aide to Rep. Bob Ney (R-OH), who later went to work with
disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff, pleaded guilty to conspiring to illegally
influence Rep. Ney. A corporate executive pleaded guilty to bribing
Rep. William Jefferson (D-LA). Federal prosecutors say they found a
$90,000 payoff in Jefferson's freezer. Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham
(R-CA) resigned after confessing to taking $2.4 million in bribes,
including a Rolls-Royce. Cunningham was sentenced to more than eight
years in prison.
A study by the Center for Public Integrity, American Public Media,
and Northwestern University journalism students found that private
sponsors paid nearly $50 million over five and a half years to send
members of Congress and their staffers on at least 23,000 trips. The
study is the first time that researchers have pinpointed the full cost
of privately funded Congressional travel.
The researchers kept tabs on which offices filed incomplete, incorrect,
or late reports disclosing details of their travels. They singled out
two lawmakers, Reps. Charles Rangel (D-NY) and Marcy Kaptur (D-OH),
for failing to disclose until six months before the report was issued
that the Cuban government and a New York grocery mogul paid for their
April 2002 trip to Havana to meet President Fidel Castro. Earlier disclosure
reports had specified only a Minneapolis-based conservation group as
Golf trips to Scotland were at the center of an expansive federal
investigation of Congressional corruption that resulted in plea agreements
from lobbyists Jack Abramoff and Michael Scanlon. Scanlon was once
a senior aide to former House Majority Leader Tom Delay (R-TX). During
the five and a half years ending in 2005, Rep. Delay's office spent
about $500,000 of other people's money on travel, topping the report's
list. The total is nearly three times the annual salary of a party
leader in the House.
Former House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-IL) made a $2 million profit
from the sale of land five and a half miles from a highway project
that he helped finance with targeted federal funds. A House member
from California received nearly double what he paid for a four-acre
parcel near an Air Force base after securing $8 million for a planned
freeway interchange l6 miles away. Another California congressman obtained
funding for street improvements near a planned residential and commercial
development that he co-owns.
In all three cases, Rep. Hastert and Reps. Ken Calvert (R-CA) and
Gary Miller (R-CA) say they were securing funds their home districts
wanted badly and in no way did the earmarks have any impact on the
land values of their investments. But for watchdog groups, the cases
-- which involve home-district projects funded through narrowly written
legislative language -- represent a growing problem. Keith Ashdown,
vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, said: "The sound
bites from politicians have always been that they're doing what's best
for their districts, but we're starting to see a pattern that looks
like they might be doing what's best for their pocketbooks."
The Los Angeles Times reported that Rep. John Murtha (D-PA), then
the ranking member on the defense appropriations subcommittee, has
a brother Robert Murtha, whose lobbying firm represents 10 companies
that received more than $20 million in the 2005 defense spending bill.
The Times noted: "Clients of the lobbying firm KSA Consulting
-- whose top officials also include former Congressional aide Carmen
V. Scialabba, who worked for Rep. Murtha as a Congressional aide for
27 years -- received a total of $20.8 million from the bill."
In early 2004, according to Roll Call, Rep. Murtha "reportedly
leaned on U.S. Navy officials to sign a contract to transfer the Hunters’s
Point shipyard to the city of San Francisco." At the time, Lawrence
Pelosi, nephew of U. S. House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi,
was an executive of the company that owned the rights to the land.
The same article also reported how Rep. Murtha has been behind millions
of dollars of earmarks in defense appropriations bills that went to
companies owned by the children of fellow Pennsylvania Democrat Rep.
According to The Economist. "Lobbyists are not the disease,
merely the symptom. Their numbers have doubled in the past five years
to 35,000, because federal spending has grown large and wasteful. Earmarks
have proliferated... from l,439 in l995 to l3,997 in 2005. Politicians
of both parties love them, because they allow an individual lawmaker
to take credit for delivering a specific goody to his constituents."
If government did not have the power to bestow a variety of benefits
and subsidies to particular interest groups, there would be little
incentive to purchase influence in Washington. As government has grown,
the incentive to curry favor with politicians has grown with it. The
Washington Examiner points out that, "The federal budget consumes
a fifth or more of the nation's annual economic activity, with the
bulk of that spending directly influenced by Members of Congress and
indirectly by their top aides. So why is anybody surprised that the
beneficiaries of federal largesse spend millions of dollars skating
right up to and sometimes past the letter of the law in order to influence
decisionmakers who hold the purse strings?"
The Bush administration, rather than cutting back government power
and spending, has expanded both. David Boaz of the Cato Institute laments
that under this administration we have seen "a 48 percent increase
in spending... a federalization of public schools and the biggest entitlement
since LBJ." Economist Milton Friedman, shortly before his death,
said of Bush administration spending policy, "I'm disgusted by
As government continues to grow, ethical lapses are likely to increase.
Congress shows little inclination to reform its own lax ethical rules.
Norman Ornstein, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute,
sums the situation up this way: "Congress's leaders have shown
they really don't care if their colleagues were taking bribes or using
hookers, much less that the oversight-deprived contracting process
is broken. They are happy that there's no ethics process to hold people
accountable. If that's not a culture of corruption, I'd like a better
As government grows larger, and the benefits to be had by purchasing
influence increases, the ethical decline we now observe is likely to
continue, even escalate. Thus far, voters have not held Members of
Congress accountable for these excesses. Until they do, little is likely
Back to The Conservative Curmudgeon archives
The Conservative Curmudgeon is copyright © 2008
by the Fitzgerald Griffin Foundation, www.fgfBooks.com. All rights reserved.
Allan C. Brownfeld is the author of five books, the latest of which
is THE REVOLUTION LOBBY (Council for Inter-American Security). He has
been a staff aide to a U.S. Vice President, Members of Congress, and
the U.S. Senate Internal Subcommittee.
He is associate editor of THE LINCOLN REVIEW and a contributing editor
to such publications as HUMAN EVENTS, THE ST. CROIX REVIEW, and THE WASHINGTON
REPORT ON MIDDLE EAST AFFAIRS.
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