Is Washington for Sale?

James Q. Wilson reviews So Damn Much Money: The Triumph of Lobbying and the Corrosion of American Government, by Robert G. Kaiser.
James Q. Wilson
Pepperdine University

"Earmarks" and "pork" have become rallying cries against the failures of our government. The Office of Management and Budget, defining an earmark as spending that members of Congress insert in bills in ways that avoid "merit-based" review, says that in 2008 there were over 11,000 earmarks costing more than $16.5 billion, a huge increase over the last few decades. And this count neglects earmarks inserted by the executive branch.

Robert G. Kaiser, an experienced reporter and former managing editor of The Washington Post, has written a fascinating book that explains why earmarks have become more common since the 1970s. His account draws upon his detailed history of Gerald S. J. Cassidy and the lobbying firm of Cassidy and Associates.

The central reason earmarks developed in the 1970s is that by then Washington was trying to solve so many problems that it appropriated money for virtually everything.

Cassidy, a Democrat, began 30 years ago to search for laws that might be exploited to provide benefits to potential clients. He and his associates read the Federal Register and the Congressional Record looking for government programs to which new, highly specific appropriations could be added to help somebody willing to pay Cassidy's bill. And his bill was not cheap: It began at $10,000 a month and went up from there.

The firm slowly found clients, but they were not greedy industrialists or the Indian tribes manipulated by Jack Abramoff. At first, they were universities. In 1976 Jean Mayer, president of Tufts, wanted to build a nutrition center and a veterinary school on his campus. Cassidy learned that there was a law authorizing a national nutrition center. Cassidy and his business partner at the time, Ken Schlossberg, spoke to House Speaker Tip O'Neill, a friend of Mayer. Soon Congress appropriated $27 million, not for a national center, but for one at Tufts.

Next the lobbyists put together a package for a Tufts veterinary school. To do that they also had to support a new veterinary school in the state of Washington and give some money to the University of Pennsylvania's veterinary school, which did not especially like having a competitor at Tufts.

More universities approached Cassidy: Georgetown, Boston University, Columbia, the University of California, Catholic University and on and on. Then business firms realized how skillful Cassidy was at getting Congress to direct funds to specific projects, and they became his clients, too.

Most people think that earmarks are bad, but why should anyone object to earmarks that help some university? Since my son was one of the first graduates of the Tufts veterinary school, I think the earmark that created it was a good idea. Members of Congress have done little to prevent earmarks partly because they want to bring home the bacon to their constituents and partly because it is so hard to distinguish between good and bad earmarks.

But let's assume we want to end them. There are only a few ways, and none seems likely to work. Kaiser wants public financing of campaigns, but that creates problems (how do you fund primary challenges?) and leaves the door open for gifts. Congress has tried to ban gifts from lobbyists, but then these firms can hire former legislators. One can make them wait two years before being hired, but that deprives honest ex-legislators of legitimate work.

Alternatively, one could amend the Constitution to create a parliamentary system in which (as in England) there are weak committees, almost no floor amendments to bills and little opportunity to insert an earmark beyond those that the prime minister has proposed. I doubt anyone wants to go this far.

Or one could do what would make the greatest difference: reduce federal spending programs of the sort that create incentives for lobbyists to expand them. The central reason earmarks developed in the 1970s is that by then Washington was trying to solve so many problems that it appropriated money for virtually everything.

Kaiser acknowledges that this is the problem. He notes that politicians, both liberal and conservative, have produced "a more intrusive government, more important to the well-being of more Americans." The more groups saw "their own fate at stake in Washington's debates on public policy, the better the market for lobbyists," he writes.

But reducing the extent of government activity is only slightly more likely than amending the Constitution. It may be better to step back and ask, "Do American voters dislike Washington because it is corrupt, or do they dislike it because it is ineffective in solving the problems (some real, some only imagined) that it has embraced?"

When the federal agenda did not include agriculture, the environment, drug abuse, gun control, academic research, mortgages, homelessness and school quality--and that was during Kaiser's lifetime and mine--it was hard to have an earmark because there were few programs to which they could be attached. And that was also the time when the great majority of Americans thought national officials were doing a good job. In the mid-1960s, between two-thirds and three-quarters of Americans thought you could trust Washington "most of the time" and that politicians listened to the people. Since the mid-70s, that support has collapsed; less than a quarter of Americans now trust Washington, according to National Election Studies poll data.

As Washington did more, people became less satisfied, because it was not making schools good, ending drug abuse or banishing homelessness. And it lost the war in Vietnam. Moreover, Congress became increasingly polarized along ideological lines as it tried to cope with these matters.

This book will help us understand national politics by giving us a close-up look at a key lobbying firm that pioneered the expansion of earmarks. But it ought to be read together with books (such as Red and Blue Nation?, edited by Pietro Nivola and David Brady) that explain the rise of ideological politics, the extreme polarization of Congress and the institutional weakness of many government structures, such as those that deal with funding Medicare and Social Security and those that buy up our (weak) mortgages. Lobbyists' money is important, but so are other, deeper issues.

James Q. Wilson is the chairman of AEI's Council of Academic Advisers.

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