Reform: Like shooting fish in a pork barrel

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Pasadena Star News
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R. Michael Alvarez

In recent years, I've walked the halls of Congress, meeting with staff members to discuss election reform.

But in my visits, I don't get face-to-face access with members of Congress that real lobbyists receive. Lobbyists get better access due to personal connections, campaign contributions and the many other favors they provide to legislators. It's these behind closed doors meetings where the real business in Washington gets conducted, meetings that typical constituents rarely receive.

And that's the problem with how business is done today in Washington.

Being able to make these direct connections with lawmakers, having direct access to elected officials, is the real political currency in Washington. Getting a few minutes of an elected leader's time, or the attention of their critical staff, is the source of lobbyist power. Access means the ability to make a quick point about pending legislation, to help staff draft new legislation, or to get a special favor from a member of Congress.

Political money, in the form of campaign contributions, or in the form of perks provided to legislators, or even as illegal payments, serves to open doors and insure critical access.

Political money that buys access for lobbyists distorts and corrupts Washington politics.

If lots of political money means that a member of Congress pays great attention to special interests outside his or her constituency, or acts against the immediate interests of his or her voters, that is wrong. It's then impossible for us common folks to get the attention of our elected officials.

This cuts to the core of the lobbying scandals unfolding in Washington. The poster children of the lobbying scandals, like Jack Abramoff and Michael Scanlon, or Tom DeLay and Duke Cunningham, are symbols of the excesses of Washington, and the extent to which our basic system of representative government is broken.

There is strong evidence that the insider's game of Washington politics is contrary to our nation's best interest. Research from the Congressional Research Service shows that the pork barrel has exploded in the decade running from 1994 to 2004. During this time, the number of pork barrel projects has skyrocketed, from 4,155 to 14,211. The amount spent on pork grew from over $29 billion to at least $53 billion.

According to Sen. McCain's Web site, recent examples of these pork barrel excesses include half a million dollars for the Arctic Winter Games in Alaska, $180,000 to study hydroponic tomato production in Ohio, $90,000 for the National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame in Texas, and $50,000 to combat feral hogs in Missouri. Each of these pork projects had little to do with the bill they were included in. Is this really how we should spend our federal tax dollars?

We've got to break this culture, and root out the arrogance of access that exists today in Washington. Washington needs some fresh air, a new openness, and a refocusing of effort on the big problems facing our nation.

To end wasteful pork, Congress has to stop allowing its members to insert last-minute spending projects into pending legislation, with no scrutiny or accountability.

To curb these excesses, Congress has to give its members at least two full days to consider all appropriations bills. All appropriations must be linked directly to the congress member requesting the funding and this member must state the necessary government interest in the appropriation. Recipients of federal largess must provide a public reporting of how the money is spent, who in their organization gets a direct financial benefit from the federal expenditure, and how much they spend on political contributions and registered lobbyists.

Congress also has to reform its internal ethics process and how members interact with lobbyists.

One important step is for Congress to create an independent and bipartisan ethics commission, with real powers to investigate and enforce all ethical violations by members and their staffs. Members of Congress, and their staff, must be banned from receiving anything from registered lobbyists, including political contributions, gifts and meals. We have to stop members of Congress and staff from accepting free travel from any private source. All meetings between members of Congress and their staff must be disclosed and records of their meetings must be made available to the public.

Last, no member of Congress, nor their staff, should be allowed to register as a Washington lobbyist for at least a decade after they leave Congress. No one should be able to use their recent past in Congress to make millions lobbying their former colleagues.

We have a mess to clean up in Washington. Billions of dollars of taxpayer funds are wasted each year because of pork projects inserted into legislation at the last minute, at the behest of lobbyists. Elected officials in Washington pay too much attention to the demands of lobbyists, many of whom are their former colleagues. They need to pay more attention to the common folks back home.