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Lobbyist Scandal An Opportunity for Taxpayers
Abramoff scandal will increase public accountability…
[by Jon Coupal and Jim Lacy] 1/31/06

The scandal 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 clients.

Jon Coupal

Jon 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]

As layers of this odious onion are pealed away, the public is becoming all the 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.

It comes as little surprise, therefore, that lobbyists have also been quite successful 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.

Members of Congress would do well to focus on the expectations of their constituents 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 of HJTA.

copyright 2006 Howard Jarvis Taxpayers association



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