What It Might Take To Clean Up Washington
WASHINGTON -- Disraeli
knew of a lady who asked a gentleman if he believed in Platonic
friendship. He replied, ``After, but not before." For congressional
Republicans, after has arrived.
After Abramoff. After
DeLay. After the ``K Street Project" -- the torrid and mutually
satisfying dalliance of Republican members with lobbyists. Now
Republicans are prepared to be, or at least want to be seen to
be, chaste. They are determined to devise reforms to steer Congress
away from the shoals of sin, so they are receiving many suggestions
from Washington's permanent cohort of Dawnists.
Those are people
who believe that, given good intentions and institutional cleverness,
an era of civic virtue will dawn. They are mistaken, but 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.
End the use of continuing
resolutions. Adopted at the end of fiscal years when Congress
does not complete appropriations bills, continuing resolutions
usually authorize the government to continue spending at current
levels. If Congress had to get its work done on time -- if the
only alternative were a chaotic government shut-down -- it would.
Then Congress would have less reason to loiter in Washington doing
mischief. Speaking of which ...
to private entities. Government money should flow directly to
government agencies -- federal, state or local. And those agencies
should be required to formally testify that local projects receiving
national funding serve essential national needs. Appropriations
that are, effectively, cash flows from individual representatives
to private entities are invitations to corruption. Federal money
directed to private entities was what ex-Rep. Duke Cunningham,
R-Calif., was bribed to deliver.
So, end ``earmarks."
They write into law a representative's or senator's edict that
a particular sum be spent on a particular project in his or her
state or district.
Jeff Flake, an Arizona
Republican, has written to the House leadership that, ``With the
number and dollar value of earmarks more than quadrupling over
the past decade, pork-barrel spending has become an unfortunate
hallmark of our Republican majority." Arguing that additional
restrictions on lobbying, although perhaps needed, would be ``peripheral
reform at best," Flake says, ``We first have to look at our
own conduct." To do otherwise ``would do more to feed public
cynicism than restore public confidence."
Often, earmarks are
included in neither the House nor Senate versions of an appropriations
bill, but are inserted surreptitiously and at the last minute
in the report of the conference committee -- and the House rule
against this is routinely waived. Flake's legislation, H.R. 1642,
would prohibit federal agencies from funding any earmark not contained
in a bill's actual legislative language. And the bill would allow
a point-of-order to prevent the waiving of House rules against
including non-germane spending -- earmarks not included in either
House or Senate spending bills -- in conference reports.
The Inland Valley
Daily Bulletin of Ontario, Calif., reported last week that a $1.28
million earmark put into the transportation bill by Rep. Gary
Miller, R-Calif., is for improving streets in Diamond Bar, Calif.,
in front of a 70-acre planned housing and retail development of
which Miller is co-owner with those who are his largest campaign
contributors. He says Diamond Bar requested the money.
it did: If the federal government is going to finance localities'
infrastructures, localities will rush to the trough. And most
House members believe that abstaining from earmarks would be career-killing
folly. But when a primary challenger faulted Flake for never
delivering earmarks -- and for that reason three of the five mayors
in Flake's district endorsed his challenger -- Flake won easily.
Still, many Americans
unblushingly enjoy in practice what they deplore in principle
-- Washington's expensive refusal to limit itself to proper federal
business. So, a final, and whimsical, proposal:
The public today
is denouncing Congress for its promiscuous attention to the public's
appetites for government favors. Although it is a principle of
Washington discourse that no discouraging word shall ever be said
about the American public, nevertheless:
On the door
of every congressional office into which favor-seekers troop,
there should be a sign with these words from the late George Stigler,
the Nobel Prize-winning economist from the University of Chicago:
``I consider it a cowardly concession to a false extension of
the idea of democracy to make sub rosa attacks on public
tastes by denouncing the people who serve them. It is like blaming
the waiters in restaurants for obesity."
Many people attacking
Congress are also attacking themselves. And they are correct.
2005, Washington Post Writers Group