An Earmark Full of Misdirection

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Guest authored by Matthew Yglesias

“This is, in its essence, a Republican scandal, any attempt to portray it otherwise is a misdirection,” opined Rich Lowry in a January 10 column on Republican activist turned lobbyist turned criminal Jack Abramoff, a welcome admission from the editor of The National Review, America’s premiere conservative opinion outlet. He went on to urge the GOP to “embrace the spirit of reform that swept them to power in 1994” by, among other things, putting a stop to “the practice of ‘earmarking’ federal dollars for local and special-interest projects.”

Lowry is by no means alone on the right. In his January 15 column for The Washington Post, George Will observed that “there are some reforms that, although they will not guarantee virtue, will complicate vice, which is as much progress as is possible in this naughty world,” and advised Republicans to “end ‘earmarks'” as part of the solution. On January 5, David Brooks wrote much the same thing in The New York Times and repeated it on the next day’s NewsHour.

Nor are conservative pundits alone in taking this hard line. Rep. Jeff Flake, a quite conservative Arizona Republican with a maverick streak took up the cause in a January 7 letter to House Speaker Dennis Hastert about how “continuing media coverage of indictments, possible indictments, plea deals, tainted campaign contributions, etc=, has severely eroded the public trust.” Under the circumstances, it’s no surprise that the earmark issue has emerged as an important factor in the contest to replace Tom DeLay as House Majority Leader, with Rep. John Shadegg, the least establishment-oriented of the candidates, leading the charge. As The New York Times reported on January 14, “With relationships with lobbyists and the call for an overhaul in lobbying rules dominating the public campaigning for the party contest, Mr. Shadegg endorsed changes limiting the ability of lawmakers to insert pet projects in spending bills.”

Conservatives criticizing conservatives is a welcome development, but there’s a small problem here – none of the various criminal allegations swarming around the GOP have anything to do with earmarks.

This is to be expected. The primary use of earmarks is to get federal funding for a local project that’s not of national concern. Politicians do this because funneling money to the home district wins votes in a straightforward way; it’s exactly the sort of thing you wouldn’t need to bribe a congressman into doing. Rather than a part of the current wave of corruption scandals, earmarks are just a longstanding conservative pet peeve. Right-wing pundits don’t like them because they raise overall spending, but most Republican politicians like them because they help win elections. The right also finds harping on earmarks, which only comprise about one percent of federal spending, a useful way to pretend that the budget is full of waste. It’s a time-honored tension and has nothing to do with Jack Abramoff or anything else in the news.

Talking about earmarks is, however, a way to look serious about corruption without ruffling too many feathers. Shifting attention to the budget process deflects attention from the basic reality that Republican members of Congress – including Tom DeLay, the most powerful man in the House GOP caucus – were breaking the law and nobody seemed very interested in it until federal prosecutors put the issue on the table. Indeed, only a public outcry stopped House Republicans from changing their caucus rules in late 2004 to allow DeLay to keep his leadership post even if he came under indictment. It’s also a good way to avoid the subject of federal contracting policy, which some of the criminal charges actually do involve, which would raise more uncomfortable questions for the right. Conservatives generally applauded the trend to outsource public functions to private firms in the name of market efficiency, but the reality of contracting has had more to do with profits for politically connected companies than with saving taxpayer dollars.

David Safavian, the top executive branch official in charge of contracting, is now under indictment. Accepting bribes in exchange for rigging the contracting process is one of several charges to which Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham recently pled guilty. What’s more, this sort of criminal activity is largely continuous with perfectly legal – but hardly commendable – practices that are standard operating procedure in today’s Washington. The 2003 Medicare reform bill, for example, offered senior citizens prescription drug coverage not directly through Medicare itself, but indirectly through subsidies to private insurance companies even though the evidence suggests this will be more expensive. It also prevents Medicare from following the lead of Veterans Affairs and using its bulk purchasing power to negotiate discounts, a clear loser for program beneficiaries and taxpayers alike, but an excellent deal for pharmaceutical companies. As far as anyone knows, no Republican congressman pocketed a single illegal dollar in exchange for that travesty of a bill, but it’s no coincidence that insurance companies and drug producers are major donors both to the Republican Party and to the constellation of conservative non-profit institutions that provide the movement’s backbone.

Most broadly, the Republicans have institutionalized a habit of essentially outsourcing all policymaking to corporate interests. Regulatory posts are regularly handed out to former representatives of the industries they’re supposed to be regulating. Corporate lobbyists are involved in the drafting of legislation. DeLay and Senator Rick Santorum – ironically in charge of devising lobbying reform proposals for the Senate Republicans – have sought to formalize this relationship through the K Street Project which has aimed for years, and with no small degree of success, at eliminating the distinction between the Republican Party and the lobbying industry.

These are the practices – not the longstanding and minor habit of congressmen trying to grab the biggest possible share of highway spending for their constituents – that are the building blocks of the culture of corruption gripping Washington. Conservative pundits who don’t want to face up to this are welcome to return to their usual practice of ignoring or minimizing Republican wrongdoing, but ostentatious denunciations of indicted officials segueing into attacks on earmarks is, as Lowry might say, just another misdirection.

Matthew Yglesias is Staff Writer at The American Prospect and Associate Editor of TPMCafe. You can read more of his work at

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