06 March 2010

House Ethics Committee Gives Earmark Factory A Green Light

WSJ: Earmarks Forever
The House ignores Nancy Pelosi's board of outside ethics watchdogs.

Just as the cherry blossoms arrive each spring around the capital's Tidal Basin, cases of Congressional ethics appear to be blooming everywhere in Washington. Harlem Congressman Charlie Rangel's Ways and Means Chairmanship floated away this week. New York Congressman Eric Mass dropped his House seat via retirement ahead of sexual harassment allegations. But the most striking—and relevant—of all ethics cases is passing without notice. It's worth a close look.

It involves earmarks, which everyone in America knows Congress has promised to clean up. Read the tale below, and discover how Congress assumes that the once-spectacular issue of earmark abuse can be as easily forgotten as two-week old cherry blossoms.

At issue was the charge that defense-industry clients of the lobbying shop of Paul Magliocchetti and Associates (PMA) were funneling campaign contributions to Congressmen in exchange for government contracts. PMA's business collapsed in November 2008 after the FBI raided its Virginia offices under suspicion of illegal campaign contributions. Its founder was a former aide for the defense subcommittee and his mentor was John Murtha. According to the Seattle Times, in "the 2008 defense bill alone, lawmakers gave PMA clients 172 earmarks."

The OCE does not have subpoena power. But it found "probable cause" that there was a quid pro quo and noted that his actions "were similar to those that the Ethics Committee admonished in the past." It voted 6-0 for further investigation of Mr. Visclosky.

Thus we arrive at the denouement, the decision by the real Ethics Committee—the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct. Get this: The Committee said late last week it could find no evidence "that members or their official staff considered campaign contributions as a factor when requesting earmarks."

Not even a "factor"? Instead the villains are the lobbyists, who, the report says "employed 'strong-armed' tactics" to try to link contributions to earmarks. The report also said there was a "wide-spread perception among corporations and lobbyists" that contributions were linked to access and earmarks. Imagine that.

What this judgment means is that the earmark favor factory has now been given an ethics green light. The culture of earmarks, of which there were nearly 10,000 in the FY2010 spending bills, will not be uprooted by this Congress. Unlike the cherry blossoms, this doesn't make a pretty picture.

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