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The Conservative Curmudgeon
May 29, 2008

Congressional Ethics and Big Government:
As One Grows, the Other Declines

by Allan C. Brownfeld

[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 the sponsor.

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. Paul Kanjorski.

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 it."

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 definition."

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 to change.

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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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