Congress

This is the best Congress money can buy.

Mark Twain

1880

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              Earmarks and Campaign Contributions
              By Jeff Flake, New York Times, 2/24/09

As we watch Senator Roland Burgis take the lead role in the
latest episode of “The Rod Blagojevich Show,” a question arises:
Is there a substantive difference between a governor promising
a Senate appointment in exchange for campaign contributions,
and a member of Congress securing an earmark for the same —
aside from a vulgar telephone call discussing the transaction?
Perhaps not.

This is not to suggest that every earmark which is in effect a
no-bid contract, is given in exchange for a campaign
contribution. But even a cursory glance at a few campaign
finance reports alongside any appropriations bill will leave you
convinced that Mr. Blagojevich was a rookie at best. The Seattle
Times has a database of defense earmarks matched with
campaign contributions. It’s chilling reading, as is research by
Taxpayers for Common Sense analyzing the uncanny alignment
between earmarks and campaign cash.

But nothing has illustrated the insidious nature of Congressional
pay-to-play better than the PMA Group, a power-house lobbying
firm that imploded this month after word got out that it was being
investigated over campaign contribution indiscretions. Over the
past few days we’ve learned that PMA’s clients remember, the
omnibus appropriations bill scheduled for debate this week
included many earmarks for PMA clients.

Congress has managed to avoid connecting the pay-to-play dots
by looking the other way. This has been easy to do. House rules
require members submitting earmark request to certify that they
have no “financial interest” in doing so. But the House ethics
manual states: “A contribution to am a member’s principal
campaign committee or leadership PAC generally would not
constitute the type of ‘financial interest’ referred to in the rule.”

Now, thanks to Rod Blagojevich and the PMA Group, perhaps
the days of whistling past the Justice Department are behind us.
If we think we can rely on Ethics committee guidelines written by
our colleagues to shield is from corruption investigations, we are
drinking our own bathwater. We have little choice but to
decouple earmarks from campaign contributions do in fact
constitute “financial interest.” I’ve introduced a House resolution
to do just that.

There are, of course, may reasons to rein in earmarks. People
everywhere have grown weary of seeing Congress waste their
money on bridges to no-where, hippie memorials and teapot
museums. But the pay-to-play ethos, because it is increasingly
tolerated among members, is most damaging to the institution.
President Obama will most likely talk about “transparency” when
he addresses Congress tonight, but that isn’t going to do much
to change the bipartisan culture of corruption of Capitol Hill, with
campaign contributions as its primary currency.

Besides, if we close the pay-to-play loophole, we can continue to
bloviate about our former House colleague Rod Blagojevich
without having to worry about serving with him again — this time
in less hospitable surroundings.

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