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April 10, 2013

Rx: Corruption Cures D.C. Gridlock

Patrick W. Allen

After years of federal taxpayer dollars being misappropriated to pay for pet projects in the districts of House and Senate members looking to curry political favor with the voters back home, a moratorium was passed in 2011 ending the congressional pork parade known as "earmarking."


Congress has rapidly morphed from a Sticks and Carrots institution to one based on Sticks and Stones. There is so much red meat being thrown around that you would think the U.S. Capitol building had turned into a slaughterhouse. Recent episodes of gridlock in Congress have some arguing for the return of legislative earmarks, which, though often abused for political gain, helped get bills passed.


Sticks and Carrots: The Stick says, "If you don't vote for my pet project, I won't vote for yours." The Carrot says, "If you will vote for my pet project, I'll be happy to vote for yours."


Sticks and Stones: The Stick says, "You suck." The Stone says, "You suck, more."


Banning earmarks is what caused the current congressional gridlock. In the years following the moratorium, it has done nothing but tie Congress up with super committees, a sequester, and continued promises to fix things in the futures. Political hacks used to say pork was the political grease that lubricated legislative deals. Only now do we see how true that assertion is.


Would it really be so terrible to reintroduce congressional-sanctioned bribery and extortion?


It is often seen and agreed that earmarks began in 1817 when Rep. John Calhoun (D., SC) proposed the Bonus Bill to construct highways linking the East and South of the United States to its Western frontier. At the time, these projects were referred to as "internal improvements." President James Madison vetoed the bill as unconstitutional, but the horse was already out of the barn and from then to the recent moratorium, horse trading has been standard operating procedure in the halls of the U.S. Capitol.


The absence of earmarks is not the sole contributor to congressional gridlock.  The vacuum created by the earmark moratorium has been overtaken, if not replaced, by the use and abuse of:


The Hastert Rule: The "majority of the majority" is a governing principle, not a legal procedure, used by Republican speakers of the House of Representatives since the mid-1990s to effectively limit the power of the minority party to bring bills up for a vote on the floor of the House. Under the "majority of the majority" doctrine, the speaker of the House of Representatives will not allow a vote on a bill unless a majority of the majority political party supports the bill.


There are pros and cons to the "majority of the majority" rule. On the positive side, it ensures that no legislative proposal will counter to the wishes of the majority of the speaker's caucus. It also all but ensures that the speaker will keep his or her job. On the negative side, when combined with a systematic effort to marginalize the influence of the minority power, it can lead to a breakdown of the legislative process, radicalization of the members of the minority party, and legislation that does not reflect the broadest view and area of agreement.


The Senate Filibuster: The Senate filibuster has become the weapon of choice by the Senate minority party to stop and block legislation introduced by the majority political party...requiring the majority party to achieve a 60-plus super majority vote count, or to pull the legislation from the floor.


The exponential use and abuse of the filibuster has actually resulted in the minority political party controlling the business of the U.S. Senate.


The Lobbying Extortion Plan: With earmarks gone or cleverly hidden from view, congressional bribery and extortion between members of Congress has been replaced with even greater extortion by special interest groups and lobbyists – “Don't vote my way and I'll primary you in the next election cycle."


Additionally, Citizens United has provided an abundance of fuel (undocumented contributors and untraceable sources) to propel this emerging and disastrous form of governance.


There are also those who opine that "earmarks are good" because they are more democratic and less bureaucratic than traditional appropriation spending, which generally is not tailored to specific projects. And there is momentum building behind this point of view. The notion of earmarks, trading votes for projects, is not as distasteful as it might seem. However, when earmarks are used as poison pill amendments or unpopular issues are hidden within Defense appropriations, Transportation and other bills, the sense of compromise is totally obfuscated and overtaken by blatant congressional corruption.


The Bottom Line: Politicians and the public have long complained about earmarks, but there was less dysfunction in Washington...more sticks and carrots than sticks and stones...when they were allowed.


Now is the time for Congress to bring legalized horse-trading back to the floor of the House. Earmark bargaining should return as a tool of compromise and governance, but implemented with enough controls and oversight to hold the corruption to a minimum.

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