Scandal An Opportunity for Taxpayers
Abramoff scandal will increase public accountability…
[by Jon Coupal and Jim Lacy] 1/31/06
in Washington, D.C., surrounding lobbyist Jack Abramoff has
exposed a level of pay-to-play influence in our nation's Capitol
which exceeded even our suspicions, which were numerous. Abramoff
has pled guilty to trading campaign contributions and perks
such as free meals at posh restaurants and international golf
trips to Scotland in exchange for congressional votes for his
Coupal is an attorney and president of the Howard
Jarvis Taxpayers Association -- California's largest
taxpayer organization with offices in Los Angeles
and Sacramento. [go to website] [go
to Coupal index]
of this odious onion are pealed away, the public is becoming
more skeptical about the performance of their
elected officials. However, there may be a silver lining to the
scandal. Advocates of lower taxes and less government spending
have criticized for decades the use of lobbyists' funds and tax
dollars for unnecessary travel. They have also opposed last minute
special interest "ear-marking" (read: "pork-barrel")
inserts -- often at the behest of lobbyists -- into congressional
appropriations bills. After all, it doesn't take a rocket scientist
to connect the dots between undue influence and unnecessary spending,
and this latest scandal may actually help reform Congress.
Unnecessary travel and earmarking were problems well before
Jack Abramoff began working the Capitol and they continue to
raise ethical questions. For example, according to The Hill newspaper,
this month seven lawmakers flew to Detroit, courtesy of the auto
industry, to tour the floor of the annual auto show extravaganza
and visit with auto executives. Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) came
in only for a day, and did so in $300-a-night room at the Detroit
Marriott at the Renaissance Center, a fancy glass high-rise that
overlooks the Detroit River and Canada. Further, The Hill writes
that the Nuclear Energy Institute has spent more than $320,000
flying Congressmen, and in some cases their spouses, to places
such as Las Vegas, Paris and Barcelona, Spain, since 2000. France
is particularly a favored destination of the Institute's largesse.
Congress is currently considering important legislation on vehicle
fuel efficiency which has a potentially huge impact on the auto
industry. As a result, free trips like those to the Detroit auto
show are coming under increasing scrutiny.
Current Congressional rules allow groups, but not lobbyists
themselves, to pay for such travel. House Republican leaders
recently stated that they would seek to ban business-backed travel
for members and their staffs altogether. Not to be outdone, Democrats
are offering similar proposals.
Estimates are that members of Congress went on 1,111 privately
funded trips last year, at a cost of more than $3.4 million.
Congressional limits on how much groups can pay for meals in
Washington, for example, don't apply on these trips. It isn't
unusual for members to rack up dining bills on these privately
funded excursions that exceed $1,000. Lodging can be up to twice
as expensive. In addition, lobbyists often fly aboard corporate
jets along with members of Congress, who, at 30,000 feet, become
a captive audience for the lobbyists' pitch.
as little surprise, therefore, that lobbyists have also been
in convincing their Congressional
guests to place last minute "earmarks" in appropriations
legislation. Such legislative pork chops pay for some really
big ticket items, too, like a Super-Highway to the back woods
of West Virginia, or a $175 million suspension bridge to serve
2,000 people in Alaska. Senator Tom Coburn, (R-OK) estimates
there were at least 13,998 earmarked projects contained in last
year's appropriations bills. By way of comparison, the Senate
had only 366 roll call votes last year. An organization named
Truth Laid Bare has identified over $22,702,589,212 in pork in
the Federal budget as a result of these controversial practices.
In California, the tally is $1,772,299,750.
Let's hope that the expressed bi-partisan indignation in the
Capitol over the Abramoff scandal is more sincere than Claude
Raines when, in the classic film Casablanca, he announces he
has discovered illegal gambling in Rick's place, just before
he is handed his winnings.
Congress would do well to focus on the expectations of their
rather than the influences of the lobbyists.
It is long past time for Congress to reform travel and gift policies
in order to rebuild the trust and confidence of the voters back
home. Lawmakers must put a halt to the practice of "ear-marking" legislation
to insert private perks and privileges into legislation to reward
special interests. By removing these distractions from working
on the people's legitimate business, members of Congress would
be free to move forward on a renewed agenda to eliminate unnecessary
government spending. CRO
Jon Coupal is president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association
-- California's largest taxpayer organization -- which is dedicated
to the protection of Proposition 13 and promoting taxpayers'
rights. Jim Lacy is a Dana Point City Councilman and co-founder
2006 Howard Jarvis Taxpayers association