Let them eat earmarks


It seems that we can’t go two weeks without some pundit lecturing us that if only Washington were a bit more corrupt, we’d all be better off. Jonathan Rauch is the latest intrepid scold to insist that dishonesty and good government go hand in hand, but he’s hardly the first to suggest as much.

A close-up of a handshake by two men in business clothes.

Rauch calls for a return to back room dealmaking by unaccountable political machines, but that’s the sort of politics that produced a series of unpopular measures including the the Wall Street bailout, the Affordable Care Act and the still pending pro-business immigration reform bill, perhaps the only piece of major legislation that will get through Congress this year. Congress has so many gangs running around — small groups of lawmakers writing major pieces of legislation that are then foisted on their colleagues and backed by lots of party pressure — that we might need a new crime bill just to address them.

Sunlight is just as concerned about the influence of big money coming from outside groups as Rauch, but we can’t help notice that the political parties are no slouches at raising and spending huge sums of money themselves. The National Republican Congressional Committee has reported raising $66 million so far this year, while American Crossroads has pulled in just $3.6 million to date. And the influence — the behind closed doors influence that Rauch thinks is missing — is alive and well in the nation’s capital.

In the final hours of the last Congress, for example, it passed and the president signed an extension of various tax provisions to avert what was known as the fiscal cliff, which would have raised taxes on millions of middle class families. So far so good, except that among the provisions that was allowed to expire was payroll tax relief, which predominantly benefited working Americans. A series of “temporary” business tax breaks that collectively cost the treasury an estimated $280 billion last year remained in place. Special interests pushed for the tax breaks, which were inserted and voted out without a chance for public comment or criticism.

In that same gridlocked election year of 2012, Congress also managed to pass — by overwhelming margins — a bill to extend the life of the Export-Import Bank, an institution that provides billions in financing to giant corporations like Boeing, General Electric and Deere & Co. Not surprisingly, they were among the biggest backers of the bill, which President Barack Obama, who in his 2008 campaign labeled the bank “little more than a fund for corporate welfare,” signed.

And Rauch’s favored “political hacks cutting deals behind closed doors” included in their spending bill, passed in January, specific language requiring the Pentagon to keep spending tens of billions of dollars each year on a drone that the Air Force does not want and cannot use in combat zones — or in bad weather. But the company that makes it, Northrop Grumman, lavished campaign contributions on nearly 300 members of Congress in 2013, and one of its lobbyists co-hosted the annual golf tournament of Sen. Barbara Mikulski, the Maryland Democrat who chairs the powerful Appropriations Committee.

And of course there is today’s report from Politico that the titans of Wall Street are threatening to withhold campaign cash from Republicans in response to the tax reform proposal of House Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp, R-Mich. In the unlikely event it should become law, Camp’s plan would raise levies on banks and on carried interest — the loophole that famously allows the likes of Warren Buffet to pay a lower tax rate than his secretary. Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., assured lobbyists that Camp’s handiwork was just a draft, and other GOP leaders rushed to assure the financial industry that they wouldn’t be the proverbial “fellow behind the tree” on whom new taxes would land.

Rauch argues that those party leaders should be strengthened: “The next round of political reform should make party bosses and political machines stronger, not weaker. The candidate-selection process should be tweaked to reduce the sway of grass-roots activists and return power to party grandees.”

By grass-roots activists, Rauch means you.

Say what one will about the Tea Party now, what drove ordinary Americans to its banner five years ago was the certainty that something has gone terribly wrong in Washington. Incomes are stagnant for all but the wealthiest; able-bodied Americans are sitting idle; an alarmingly high percentage of recent college graduates have low-paying jobs that require no degree; and the American Dream is unreachable for more and more of our citizens. Letting rank-and-file members of Congress steer federal dollars to a few pet projects will not address those problems, nor will back room deals to which only insiders have access. Corruption is alive and well in Washington — and letting it flourish won’t solve our problems.