February 2, 2006

February 2, 2006 | Commentary on

Government looks best when you can see what it's up to

A doctor who mistakes one medical condition for another has little hope of curing a patient. The same principle holds true in politics: A misdiagnosis can worsen the pain instead of relieving it.


Take the Jack Abramoff scandal. Broad calls for "housecleaning" make it sound as if the problem rests with certain individuals: Replace them and the problem is solved. If only. To treat the scandal properly (a task of tremendous importance to the lawmaker who wins Thursday's vote for House majority leader), we must understand a key reason lobbying has grown out of control: The federal government is too large and spends too much, and everyone wants a piece of the pie.

Congress now spends almost $22,000 per household, one third more than it did when President Bush took office. That's our money, and behind every penny lies an army of advocates petitioning Congress for even more.

The newest growth industry is pork, with Congress lavishing unprecedented amounts on "earmarks" for pet projects. Lawmakers distribute about 14,000 earmarks per year, three times as many as they did in 2000. Each is subject to misuse.

That's because, with an earmark, a member is setting aside a certain amount of money for an individual project. Rather than, say, make highway funding available to state authorities, Congress uses earmarks to demand that a specific road or bridge be built in a specific place, whether it's needed or not. To grab some of this largesse, special interests that would benefit from specific projects often hire lobbyists and even make campaign contributions to federal lawmakers.

Not surprisingly, the line between "contribution" and "bribe" is often razor-thin.

To see how lobbyists grow like mushrooms after a heavy rain, consider the Department of Homeland Security. It didn't even exist at the start of 2001, and according to the Center for Public Integrity, only three companies issued "homeland security" filings that year. That rose to 69 in 2002, 490 in 2003 and 671 in 2004. This year, the department will spend more than $33 billion, and lobbyists go where the money is.

The solution is simple: Change the way Congress works, and you'll eliminate the attraction of earmarks. A key to that is transparency.

Under current rules, the House and Senate pass separate spending bills, which then disappear into a conference committee. There, working behind closed doors, lawmakers add millions of dollars in earmarks. A bloated bill emerges and gets a swift up-or-down vote, usually before lawmakers can read it. (Even if they did, the earmarks often appear only in the report accompanying the bill.)

We need to replace this process with a system that publicly ties each earmark to a particular lawmaker. We should be able to find out who lobbied for it, who sponsored it and who those lobbyists have showered with campaign money.

Plus, lawmakers need at least three days to review any spending measure. That would give everyone, including the taxpayers who fund it, a chance to review the bill and red flag any ridiculous earmarks -- from bridges to nowhere to indoor rainforests in Iowa.

Meanwhile, lawmakers should crack down on federal grants. Agencies hand out thousands of these, but they seldom explain where the money goes. Yet all of us deserve to know where our tax money is going, especially if it's being handed to political groups. Congress should create a public database of all government grant recipients, and lawmakers should insist that grant recipients give regular spending updates.

No matter who takes over as House majority leader, it's crucial that he push for transparency. As long as the federal government spends too much with too little oversight, any reforms will have little impact -- and the problem will fester.

Jack Abramoff is only a high-profile symptom of a larger disease. By treating the diseased root, we'll enable a healthier tree to grow.

Ed Feulner is president of The Heritage Foundation (heritage.org), a Washington-based public policy research institute.

About the Author

Edwin J. Feulner, Ph.D. Founder, Chairman of the Asian Studies Center, and Chung Ju-yung Fellow
Founder's Office

First Appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times