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

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