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Legislating Under the Influence

Up close and personal with the House Appropriations Committee

BY David Sirota

When I was hired to work on the U.S. House Appropriations Committee in 2001, I was told by many in Washington that the panel was one of last remaining places in Congress where things actually get done. By the time I left Capitol Hill some two and a half years later, I had learned what all Americans are now realizing: The panel certainly does get things done, but not for the people who elected its members. It gets things done almost exclusively for those lobbyists and corporate interests that buy influence through campaign contributions. The committee has become, in short, the breeding ground of congressional corruption.

Over the last year, the public has learned exactly how lawmakers on the Appropriations Committee have abused the incredible power granted to them as overseers of how the federal government spends tens of billions of dollars.

And the power is incredible. As chief spokesman for Democrats on this committee, I had a firsthand view of how this panel has been abused by the Republicans. Tens of millions of dollars move from one district to another for purely political reasons–all with the quick stroke of a pen behind closed doors. One line anonymously inserted in a thousand-page bill can mean the difference between the creation or elimination of national consumer regulations bought and paid for by industry campaign donors. The loudest protests from the most passionate members of both parties can be silenced on the floor of the House with a mere scowl from one of the Appropriations subcommittee chairmen. At a moment’s notice these “cardinals,” as they are known, will remove the protester’s pet projects unless they stop criticizing whatever heinous provisions were attached to the spending bill being debated.

Such power was bound to be abused in the current Congress, where the concepts of restraint or law-abiding behavior are treated as punchlines. First, in March, came the conviction of senior appropriator Duke Cunningham. The California Republican steered millions of dollars of federal contracts to the same company that paid him more than $2 million in bribes.

When Cunningham was forced to resign, Congress replaced him with Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas). Already under indictment for money laundering, DeLay is also at the center of the pay-to-play scandal surrounding Jack Abramoff–the convicted Republican lobbyist who tried to buy off members of the Appropriations Committee on behalf of his clients. DeLay, who had previously served on the Appropriations Committee before stepping down to become Majority Leader, was a close associate of Abramoff’s. He took lavish trips paid for by lobbyists with interests before the committee and pocketed campaign cash from Abramoff and his associates.

But DeLay is not alone. Rep. John Doolittle (R-Calif.), has received tens of thousands of dollars from Abramoff and his clients, while using Abramoff’s D.C. restaurant as a venue for fundraising parties. Additionally, Doolittle is among three members of the committee who accepted a combined $200,000 from the defense contractor, MZM, the corporation at the center of the Cunningham bribery conviction.

And consider committee chairman Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.). The Washington Post reported in May that he is now officially a target of a federal law enforcement investigation. He steered “hundreds of millions of dollars in federal projects for clients of one of his closest friends, lobbyist and former state Congressman Bill Lowery,” according to the San Diego Union Tribune. In exchange, “Lowery, the partners at his firm and their clients have donated 37 percent of the $1.3 million that Lewis’ political action committee received in the past six years.”

Lewis is not the only lawmaker whose behavior on the committee has caught the attention of federal investigators. Joining the chairman is Democratic appropriator Alan Mollohan (W.V.). The Washington Post reports that he “used his seat on the House Appropriations Committee to secure more than $150 million for five nonprofit groups”–groups associated with the West Virginia congressman’s own business partners. During the very same time, Mollohan became a multi-millionaire.

This pay-to-play corruption on the appropriations committee extends to national security. Rep. Hal Rogers (R-Ky.), who heads the homeland security appropriations subcommittee, has diverted funds for making tamper-proof identification cards to “companies that are donors to his political causes,” according to the New York Times. Rogers has taken 11 trips paid for by an organization to which the congressman helped steer a no-bid contract, and even moved funds to a company that employs his son. The result of Rogers’ shenanigans has been a more than two-year delay in the production of the ID cards.

These examples are disturbing. But as I also learned in my time working for the Appropriations Committee, the most corrupt behaviors are often perfectly legal. As the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics notes, “The committee does not just provide funding for lucrative government contracts, but is also famous for inserting last-minute industry-backed provisions blocking regulatory actions.”

Appropriators, knowing the spending bills they write must pass in order to keep the government operating, slip provisions into these bills that prevent the government from enforcing already-passed laws. This corrupt practice is so well-honed, industry-funded think tanks like the Heritage Foundation have issued detailed reports instructing lawmakers on where they can most effectively use riders to do corporate favors. These riders are perfectly legal and profoundly damaging.

Consider what happened in the wake of Mad Cow scares, when Congress passed a law mandating country-of-origin labeling of meat. When it came time to implement the law, Rep. Henry Bonilla (R-Texas) used his chairmanship of the agriculture appropriations subcommittee to insert language into a spending bill to postpone the law indefinitely. He was rewarded for his efforts by tens of thousands of dollars of campaign cash from the food processing industry. Especially grateful was Tyson Foods, which in 2004 gave Bonilla its private jet so that he could fly to fundraisers all over the country.

Stemming the corruption emanating from the Appropriations Committee is no small task. Some have suggested prohibiting appropriators from earmarking federal money for specific projects. But that would merely move spending decisions out of Congress and into the executive branch, and not solve the problem. Unelected bureaucrats, not elected officials, would get to decide how money is spent–a clear affront to Congress’s constitutional power of the purse, and no guarantee that corporate interests would not simply shift their influence-buying operations to the White House.

Sunlight laws are a better first step. The root of the problem lies not in appropriators’ power, but in the use of secrecy to exercise that power. Right now, appropriators can slip earmarks or destructive regulatory riders into giant spending bills anonymously, meaning no threat of public embarrassment for those trying to abuse their power. Worse, the bills carrying these provisions–often thousands of pages long–can be brought to vote just hours after they are written, ensuring there is no time for scrutiny.

I remember late nights gulping down coffee, frantically leafing through finalized spending bills trying to answer lawmakers’ questions about what they would be voting on. The appropriations process, I learned, is purposely rigged. To remedy the situation, Congress must pass a new law that forces appropriators to put their names next to the provisions they sponsor and forces the Appropriations Committee to provide ample time for their bills to be scrutinized before they are passed into law.

The next logical step is for Congress to embrace a public financing system of elections–a concept being aggressively pushed by Rep. David Obey (D-Wisc.), the House Democrats’ senior appropriator. America currently relies on a system of legalized bribery to elect our Congress. Lawmakers’ campaigns are funded by the corporate contributors, who then demand favors such as wasteful federal contracts in return. A public financing system of elections, such as the ones adopted by Arizona or Connecticut, would allow candidates to run for office without having to participate in this corrupt cycle, and without feeling the need to use their positions to reward campaign donors.

The House Appropriations Committee may seem like just another congressional panel, but it is not. It is the place that distinguishes America’s system of government from most others, because it is where democracy–not a sole executive or dictator–exerts control over the nation’s treasury. But like a disease afflicting a vital organ, corruption is eating away at this committee. Already, that corruption has destroyed the bipartisanship that used to ensure that the panel’s important work was handled seriously. And now, as that corruption spreads from the committee into the Congress as a whole, our entire system of democracy is under threat from a money-dominated political process gone mad. Unless Congress reforms the way this committee works, America can never hope to take back our government from the corporate interests that own our political process.

David Sirota, an In These Times senior editor and syndicated columnist, is a staff writer at PandoDaily and a bestselling author whose book Back to Our Future: How the 1980s Explain the World We Live In Now—Our Culture, Our Politics, Our Everything was released in 2011. Sirota, whose previous books include The Uprising and Hostile Takeover, co-hosts "The Rundown" on AM630 KHOW in Colorado. E-mail him at ds@davidsirota.com, follow him on Twitter @davidsirota or visit his website at www.davidsirota.com.

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