January 15, 2006
What It Might Take To Clean Up Washington

By George Will

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 ...

Forbid appropriations 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.

No doubt 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. Twice.

© 2005, Washington Post Writers Group

George Will

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