Saturday, February 23, 2008

Defense earmarks and the Pacific NW delegation

Last night's Bill Moyers Journal featured a documentary on the efforts by the Seattle Times' to track down the earmarks in the 2007 defense appropriations bill--in the end there turned out to be 2700 of them totaling around $12 billion, but it was no small task finding them and matching them with the corporate donors who received the federal money. Even finding those earmarks inserted by members of the Pacific Northwest delegation--the focus of the documentary and the original focus of the investigation by the Times--wasn't that easy.

You can see the segment (with transcript) here:

The documentary tells the story of a $4.65 million dollar boat that Congress forced the Coast Guard to buy, even though the Coast Guard said they didn't want the boat because it didn't fit their needs. (The USCG ended up selling it to a Northern California county sheriff's office for a dollar.) And then there's the $1 million worth of t-shirts that the military had to purchase for the Marines in Iraq, although they won't be used because the polyester material is inflammable (look it up). And let's not forget the helmet-mounted computer display ($8 million for R&D, then $5 million in military contracts) that the Army didn't use ("it's junk," said one Iraq vet).

There's more to this than simply government waste, though. In each of these cases the appearance of the earmark, usually in late-night conference sessions, tracks disturbingly with campaign donations from the local business benefiting from the government contracting.

The architects of these particular boondoggles are all Pacific Northwest Democrats--the documentary focuses on Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA), Rep. David Wu (D-OR1), Rep. Brian Baird (D-WA3), and Rep. Norm Dicks (D-WA6). Yes, Democrats are back in the earmark-and-donation game again, and for a simple reason: Since 2006 it's the Democrats who have something to deal. Using the Times' database of 2007 earmarks cross-referenced with contributors, here is the Oregon congressional delegation's box scores (click the links to find who the contributor/beneficiares are):

Rep. David Wu (D-OR1):
2007 Defense Earmarks: $14.2 million
2001-2007 Contributions from earmark recipients: $58,799

Rep. Greg Walden (R-OR2):
2007 Defense Earmarks: $0 2001-2007 Contributions from earmark recipients: $47,896

Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR3):
2007 Defense Earmarks: $14.5 million
2001-2007 Contributions from earmark recipients: $17,750

Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-OR4):
2007 Defense Earmarks: $13.1 million
2001-2007 Contributions from earmark recipients:$1,000

Rep. Darlene Hooley (D-OR5):
2007 Defense Earmarks: $0
2001-2007 Contributions from earmark recipients: $36,350

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR):
2007 Defense Earmarks: $56.950 million
2001-2007 Contributions from earmark recipients: $33,575

Sen. Gordon Smith (R-OR):
2007 Defense Earmarks: $59.830 million
2001-2007 Contributions from earmark recipients: $100,004

Here's another instance involving Murray uncovered by the Times, not mentioned in the documentary. It shows how the process works (emphasis added):

Not long after Nelson Ludlow and his wife started a technology business in Port Townsend with money scraped together from friends, family and retirement accounts, they spent precious dollars in an unlikely way:

They hired a lobbyist and started giving to a congressional campaign fund.

The lobbying paid off. Soon, an $800,000 earmark for the Ludlows was tucked into a 2003 spending bill, giving their tiny startup, Mobilisa, a no-bid contract to provide Internet service on Puget Sound ferries.[…]

Hiring a lobbyist, Ludlow said, was a way to take Mobilisa beyond being just a startup.

"There are two ways to play Little League baseball: One is everyone gets a chance to bat, and the other is that the team decides they want to win," Ludlow said. "And people at Mobilisa decided they wanted to win."

For an investment of about $30,000 in donations to Murray and Baird, plus the lobbyist's fees, Mobilisa brought in over $12 million in non-compete government contracts. You can figure out the ROI on that. Give Ludlow and Mobilisa credit: You'd have to be a chump not to play the game that way.

Doesn't it just give you a thrill to see the free market and representative government working together, hand in hand?

Murray and Baird of Washington, interviewed for the documentary, both stressed that there was no quid pro quo in any of this. I don't doubt them that there's no illegal quid pro quo going on here. The campaign finance laws as they stand not only make these arrangements legal, they make them virtually inevitable.

As Brian Baird elegantly phrases it in the documentary:

If you went to a system where you couldn't take a campaign contribution, then you'd only be able to get--the . . . only people you could get money from are people you've never helped.

And what kind of world would that be? Oh yeah--it would be a world where voters owned the process, not corporate donors. Heaven forfend.

I have no objection to the idea that our congressional delegation brings home federal money for local projects. As a bicycle commuter, for example, I really appreciate the pork Earl Blumenauer has brought home to improve biking facilities in the Portland area.

But that's not what we're talking about here. If you can't call the connection between corporate donations and government contracts--often no-bid contracts--"illegal," it's certainly unwholesome.

Do individual voters have to hire lobbyists and start maxing out their political donations just to get heard in this game?

(Cross-posted at Loaded Orygun.)

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