Democrats seem on the way to retaking the House. But what will they inherit? Recent polls show just one in four Americans thinks Congress is doing a good job. Thatís not surprising considering the stench of corruption that emanates from Capitol Hill.
The surprising thing is Republicans aren't taking the public's "kick the rascals out" mood more seriously. You'd think after the Jack Abramoff scandal had spread to Tom DeLay and Ohio Republican Bob Ney, and after former California Rep Duke Cunningham pleaded guilty to bribery Ė- that after all, Speaker Dennis Hastert and his leadership team would have recognized the need for some dramatic action.
Instead they produced a wimpy "lobbying reform" bill last spring that barely touched earmarks and didn't even ban taking gifts and meals from lobbyists. That bill isn't going anywhere anyway. It's still lingering in a House-Senate conference committee, where it's apparently been consigned to permanent limbo.
The conventional view in the House is Americans really don't care about lobbying reform because they take corruption for granted, and it won't especially hurt Republicans (or benefit Democrats) this fall. According to this view, Americans think Congress is rotten to the core except when it comes to their own representative, who they consider a fine, upstanding person. The phenomenon is roughly analogous to what Americans think about education -- the system is terrible except their own schools, which are fairly good.
This conceit is itself proof of the bubble-wrap insularity of the House. It also belies history. Voters threw Democrats out in 1994 because they were sick of what seemed to them an unresponsive and often corrupt cabal that had held power so long they took it for granted. Republicans who think the public doesn't care about corruption -- or think their own representative is just fine even if the rest of them are skunks -- are asking for a repeat of 1994.
The stench is worse today than in 1994. The number of registered lobbyists in Washington has ballooned to the point there are over 60 of them for every single member of Congress. They spent $2.4 billion last year. What do you think the lobbyists bought with that money?
A lot of it was for earmarks, obviously -- specific morsels of bacon designed to pay off some big donors back home. Most folks back home don't see a penny of it. It goes into the pockets of conduits like Jack Abramoff. And taxpayers foot the bill for all the earmarks for every specially-favored interest all over the country. Ten years ago there were about 3,000 earmarks. Last year there were over 14,000, costing taxpayers over $47 billion, according to the Congressional Research Service.
To show voters they've at least done something, the House leadership is set to require by House rules that legislation containing earmarks list members of Congress who sponsored them. But thatís not reform. Thatís advertising. Thereís no mystery about who sponsors what earmark. Just look at whose district the earmarked money will go to.
Meanwhile, several of the appropriations bills now awaiting final markup are chocked-full of earmarks. Take a look at Labor-HHS. There are more special earmarks in that pork-invested appropriation than were doled out in total ten years ago.
The only meaningful reform is to ban all earmarks, period. Theyíre taxpayer ripoffs. They're legalized bribery. If this House wonít clean up its act, the public will clean up the House and throw the rascals out. If the Democrats don't stop this taxpayer carnage on their watch, the public will throw them out next time.
Robert Reich is Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley. He has served in three national administrations, most recently as secretary of labor under President Bill Clinton. He has written ten books, including The Work of Nations, which has been translated into 22 languages; the best-sellers The Future of Success and Locked in the Cabinet, and his most recent book, Reason. His articles have appeared in the New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly, New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal. Mr. Reich is co-founding editor of The American Prospect magazine.