Tuesday, January 22, 2013

If the Narrative Fits...

The assumption is that member of Congress are self-interested, greedy, obsessed with reelection and usually corrupt. Earmark coverage fits within that narrative.  Cheese Factories on the Moon, page 104)
Pet peeve. Media coverage of politics--but especially earmarks--fails to provide sufficient context for readers more often than not.

When the facts "confirm" the narrative why bother with context?

Case in point: a story published last week by the Center for Responsive Politics.  Janie Boschma reports that former House Appropriations Committee member Steve Rothman will join a Newark law firm that lobbies on behalf of the defense industry.

Boschma employs the "revolving door" metaphor to highlight Rothman's behavior as particularly objectionable.

Rothman served on the Defense Subcommittee of Appropriations and Boschma treads the familiar link between campaign contributions and "legislative favors."
...the defense industry is one Rothman knows well. Among his top defense contributors during his 14-year House career were BAE Systems, $42,300; General Dynamics, $35,000; Lockheed Martin, $33,500; Boeing, $32,000; Honeywell International, $28,000; and Finmeccanica SpA, $24,000. Altogether, the defense sector donated $277,850 to Rothman during his tenure.
That is a lot of money. What the author does not tell you is this: $277,850 represents 2.4% of the campaign money that Rothman raised during his 14-year career in Congress.  A look at CRP's own database reveals that Rothman raised $684,950 from transportation and public sector unions over the same period, almost two-and-a-half times the money he raised from defense interests.

And then a turn to the dramatic, Boschma notes the

...remarkable nexus between budgetary earmarks by Rothman and 11 other members of the subcommittee and campaign contributions...In 2007, Rothman teamed up with Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-N.J.) to earmark $1.5 million in the 2008 budget for Frontier Performance Polymers to research lightweight packaging for military gear.
Once again, $1.5 million is a lot of money. But in 2008 Rothman, according to the CRP database, was able to earmark $13.6 million, mostly in the defense area. CRP could not link most of his earmarks to campaign contributions. Of the 19 earmarks they identify they link two to campaign contributions.

That is about 1 in 10. A "remarkable nexus;" really?

What does Frontier Performance Polymers do? It seeks to lessen the weight of military ammunition to save weight for purposes of transportation and lightening the load for members of the military in the field. One may or may not think that is a legitimate use of federal funds, but readers deserve to judge based on the facts, not the implicit assumption that Rothman and Frelinghuysen routinely flush taxpayer dollars down the drain.

I do not know Steve Rothman (or Rodney Frelinghuysen). I have never met him. I have never lived in New Jersey. I am not a lobbyist. I have never worked in the defense industry. I am just a lowly college professor on the West Coast. Maybe Rothman is guilty of some wrong-doing; I do not know.

It is not my purpose to defend Mr. Rothman or this earmark.

But I have some advice (source: Cheese Factories on the Moon) to offer to Ms. Boschma and other reporters when it comes to earmarks:

  • Take the time to understand the process;
  • Try to understand individual earmarks;
  • Provide context;
  • Do not overgeneralize, and;
  • Be careful: Correlation does not equal causation.

--Sean Kelly

Friday, January 11, 2013

Roll Out the Barrel (We'll Have a Barrel of Funds)

More than a few commentators have weighed in recently suggesting that perhaps it is time to consider bringing back earmarks. Considering the legislative constipation that is gripping Congress it could not hurt.

Bloomberg Businessweek is the latest to float the idea that earmarks might provide some impetus for Congress: 
Political hacks used to say pork was the political grease that lubricated legislative deals. Only now do we see how true that was. Would it really be so terrible to reintroduce some congressionally sanctioned bribery? That would let members lay claim to the odd million in the interest of striking a deal worth much more.
We are loathe to think of ourselves as "hacks" (most of our contemporaries probably think we are), but the sentiment is sound.

The simple fact of the matter is this: The easiest vote to cast in Congress is NO. 

This is especially true when legislation does not contain the promise of something of import for a member of Congress and his or her constituents. 

If members of Congress can vote NO repeatedly and without consequence it should be no surprise that Congress fails to act on most all important issues.

A Case in Point

The Labor, Health and Human Services bill is perhaps the most difficult of the appropriations bills to pass. It contains funding for a variety of programs that are opposed by conservative Republicans, and contains provisions on hot-button social issues like abortion and stem cell research. Using earmarks and other forms of persuasion the Republican leadership was able to piece together a majority in support of the House version of the Fiscal Year 2006 Labor-H Appropriations bill. The House passed their version of the bill by a vote of 250 yeas to 151 nays; 206 Republicans and 44 Democrats voted for the bill while 10 Republicans, 140 Democrats, and 1 independent voted against the bill.

On the Senate side the bill was passed by a vote of 94-3, and the House and Senate met in conference to reconcile the differences between the two versions of the bill.  A decision was made in conference to remove $1 billion dollars in earmarks from the bill in favor of increased funding for the National Institutes of Health, and other initiatives favored by Senators Spectre (R-PA) and Harkin (D-IA), leaders of the Senate subcommittee.

When the bill returned to the House the Conference Report on the bill was defeated in the House 209 yeas to 224 nays. This time 22 Republicans voted with 201 Democrats (all voting Democrats) and 1 independent to reject the bill. In all, 85 members who had previously supported the bill in the House changed their votes when the bill returned to the House floor from Conference.  The one major difference between the original House version and the Conference version was the $1 billion dollars in earmarks that were removed from the Conference Report.  Stripping the earmarks upset the delicate balance necessary to pass a controversial bill.

In 2012 the House didn't even consider the FY 2013 LHHS bill on the floor-- the Appropriations Committee could not even vote out a bill out of committee.

It has been years since Congress passed all of the Appropriations bills following regular order. Republican House leaders have resorted to omnibus and "minibus" bills and continuing resolutions to fund government

Forget authorizing legislation. Congress is all but impotent.

Perhaps adding a little fiber to the diet might help? 


Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Earmarks Emerging from the Shadows

By almost any measure the 112th Congress was the least productive in several generations, perhaps in the history of the institution. According to a recent poll public approval of Congress is only 9%. Public Policy Polling "found that found is that Congress is less popular than cockroaches, traffic jams, and even Nickelback."

Wow. People would rather listen to Nickleback than watch Congress? That is pathetic.

These facts, combined with the beginning of the 113th Congress, have led several media outlets to look more closely at how Congress can improve its efficiency.

For some the answer is: Earmarks.

Over at Forbes, Rick Ungar links the failures of the last Congress to the decision to impose an earmark moratorium:

The moratorium on earmarks went into existence in February 2011. Since that time we have seen some of the greatest legislative fails in the history of the nation, highlighted by the debt ceiling fiasco of 2011, the inability to pass a jobs bill, an ever-increasing vacancy rate in the federal judiciary as one nominee after another is shelved and, of course, the current fiscal cliff clunker that might be the most embarrassing and damaging display of congressional incompetence of all.
NPR's All Things Considered ran a story asking "Could Reviving Earmarks Get Congress Going Again?" Quoting the ever-colorful former-Senator Alan Simpson highlights the fact that earmarks are a necessary component of the congressional process: 
 "[Lyndon Johnson] came up to Pop one time and said, 'Milward, what can I do for you? I need your vote ... surely you must have a dam or something out there you need in Wyoming,' " Simpson tells Jacki Lyden, host of weekends on All Things Considered. "I'm not talking about purity; I'm just talking about reality."
At Slate Matthew Iglesias points out that the fiscal cliff highlights the fact that earmarks help members of Congress make difficult decisions:

That’s not to say we should pine for a return to bribery and graft, but watching the prolonged fiscal cliff deadlock (and other Obama-era legislative battles) it was hard not to miss a little old-fashioned earmarking and pork.
We would be remiss (actually we would just be modest and who wants to be modest?) if we did not point out that we predicted from the beginning that the earmark moratorium would be damaging, and that we pointed out that the moratorium was an epic fail months ago.

Since the 113th Congress will also observe the earmark moratorium we predict continued dysfunction.

To be sure congressional dysfunction goes beyond the earmark moratorium (e.g., exceptionally high levels of ideological extremity and partisanship), but in the absence of the salve of earmarks there is little else to lessen the friction and allow Congress to do the people's work.

But at least people are talking openly about earmarks again, and that is a hopeful development.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Cheese Factories on The Inner Loop

The Inner Loop is a new internet radio program on VoiceAmerica. It features two long-time Washington insiders--Howard Marlowe and Michael Willis--who are serious about helping people to understand how "really works."
The episode for June 18, 2012 focuses on earmarks. The program features an all-star cast including a discussion of Cheese Factories on the Moon, former Appropriator Jim Walsh, and Steve Ellis from Taxpayers for Common Sense. Our segment begins at the five minute mark.


Friday, June 15, 2012

Things are heating up in the Cheese Factory

In his review for the Spring 2012 issue of the political science journal Congress and the Presidency (39:2, 219-221) Bruce Oppenheimer (Vanderbilt University), one of the giants of congressional studies, calls Cheese Factories on the Moon: Why Earmarks are Good for American Democracy "an easy-to-read, entertaining, and stimulating book...a heroic challenge to what is the nearly universally accepted wisdom about the evils of congressional earmarks...a valuable counterpoint to those who exaggerate and misconstrue the nature of earmarks."

Saturday, March 31, 2012

Show Us the Money

Critics of earmarks frequently point to the presumed quid pro quo between earmarks and campaign contributions. They argue that members of Congress pursue earmarks in order to rake in campaign contributions from lobbyists who are scrambling to get earmarks for their clients.

If this is true then one would expect that members of the Appropriations Committees would be raising piles of cash. Membership on Appropriations should be the most valuable--or one of the most valuable--committee assignments a member could achieve from the perspective of campaign contributions.

This American Life is airing a program this week about money and politics. Part of the program focuses on this question: Which committees are most valuable in terms of campaign contributions? Lee Drutman, a Senior Fellow at the Sunlight Foundation (and fellow political scientist), crunched the numbers (covering multiple congresses and going back into the 1990s) for Planet Money.

Is an assignment to Appropriations number 1? No, that honor goes to Ways and Means. OK. Well that makes sense. Targeted tax provisions (tax earmarks) are worth a fortune--millions, even billions--to well-represented and well-financed corporations.

Surely Appropriations is number 2. No, that honor goes to the Financial Services Committee. Hmm. Well, OK. That makes sense, they write legislation that influences the bottom line of the financial services industry, the largest component of the American economy.

Well, you know, Appropriations is number 3, right? Sorry, that honor goes to the Energy and Commerce Committee. Again, this makes sense since the jurisdiction of the committee is the broadest in the House, covering everything from oil and gas to health care. Many, many corporations have legislative interests that fall within the purview of the committee.

Is it surprising that Appropriations is not in the top three; that it falls in the middle of the distribution? Not really. Critics of earmarks have been loud in their denunciations of earmarks, and shrewd in creating the quid pro quo narrative, but they have been (and are) wrong. They have diverted attention from the more important and less visible legislative activities in Congress that are infinitely more costly to American taxpayers.

In the meantime earmark foes have robbed our representatives of the ability to counterbalance the power of the executive branch to spend money by successfully hounding congressional leaders for an earmark moratorium. Furthermore, absent earmarks the legislative process has almost completely stalled. After draining the oil from the engine is anyone surprised when the engine seizes up during the cross-country trip?

With the legislative process stalled, and Congress pressured to pass authorizations and appropriations for infrastructure and water projects, it will become increasingly clear that earmarks are critical for Congress to fulfill its constitutional role.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Political Misdirection

Just before the Iowa Caucuses, with Rick Santorum surging in the polls, Rick Perry went on the attack criticizing Santorum's record on earmarks. Now neck-and-neck with Santorum in South Carolina, the Romney campaign has torn a page from the Perry playbook.

Romney has enlisted long-time earmark critic John McCain to likewise attack Santorum on earmarks. Invoking the names of South Carolina's two Senators McCain noted "I think [earmarks are] wrong for America and so does Sen. [Jim] DeMint and so does Sen. Lindsey Graham who have been staunch fighters against earmark and pork barrel spending." (The use of Graham's name is dubious given Graham's support for earmarks and his very public feud with DeMint over an earmark for the port at Charleston.)

Conjuring up one of his well-worn claims McCain argued on the campaign trail yesterday that "...earmark spending is the gateway to corruption...Sen. Santorum and I have a strong disagreement, a strong disagreement that he believes that earmark and pork barrel projects were good for America."

Misdirection takes advantage of the cognitive limits of the human mind. Typically we can only focus on one thing at a time. Misdirection works by focusing our attention on one thing, something likely to grab our attention, while a more meaningful objective is achieved unnoticed by the spectator. 

Political misdirection uses the same principle; distract the public with an issue of dubious policy importance like earmarks while achieving larger policy goals. While the public is frothing over earmarks much more costly tax loopholes are woven into the tax code for the benefit of favored constituencies (with the added benefit of then decrying the tax code as too complicated and filled with loopholes).

An example came to our attention by way of an NPR story that aired this morning.

A recent study University of Kansas professors Raquel Alexander, Stephen Mazza, and Susan Scholz examines the "return on investment" of lobbying expenditures on the American Jobs Creation Act of 2004. The AJCA created an amnesty for U.S. corporations with foreign earnings that were held off shore. Corporations could "repatriate" those funds at a substantial tax discount (15% on earnings compared to the 35% tax rate on the earnings). 

Alexander, Mazza, and Scholz estimate that companies spent about $288 million lobbying for the AJCA reaping tax savings of $62.5 billion; that is, for every $1 a corporation invested in lobbying on AJCA their average return on investment was $220.

This single tax loophole in 2004 cost about four times all of the earmark expenditures for that same year. A quick search of The New York Times for 2004 reveals almost 100 stories about earmarks and "pork barrel projects" and only one story about the $62.5 billion American Jobs Creation Act.

We are not suggesting that lobbying is corrupt. We are not suggesting that the AJCA was bad policy. We are not suggesting that the members of Congress who supported the AJCA were corrupt. 

What we are suggesting is that earmark critics like McCain create a tempest surrounding earmarks while more fundamental and costly issues get little or no attention. Likewise, when it comes to the Republican Presidential nomination what stories about Romney are being ignored while the electorate and the media are distracted with earmarks?