‘Bridges to Nowhere’ Are No More

Posted January 18, 2008 at 4:43pm

Call them earmarks, if you must, but they ain’t the “pork” of yesteryear. Minnesota Sens. Amy Klobuchar (D) and Norm Coleman (R) added a $195 million earmark to the omnibus appropriations bill to rebuild the collapsed bridge in Minneapolis. A bridge earmark — yes, indeed. But this bridge happens to go somewhere.

The new 110th Congress stormed Capitol Hill last year on a promise to pass comprehensive lobbying reform and change business as usual. It delivered on that promise.

Earmarks are no longer secret. As Congress finalizes its appropriations bills, one component of the new lobbying law is earmark reform. It used to be that pet spending projects were secretly inserted into massive spending bills. Not anymore. The new reforms require each earmark to be clearly identified and assigned a sponsor — and posted on the Internet 48 hours before a vote. Committee reports even put this information in chart format.

Now out in the open, earmarking has fundamentally changed. Citizens Against Government Waste, an organization critical of earmarks, documented their sharp decline last year due to greater public scrutiny and a temporary moratorium. Both the number and dollar amount reached an all-time high during the previous Congress — with 13,997 earmarks worth $27.3 billion in 2005 and 9,963 earmarks worth $29 billion in 2006. But under the new 110th Congress, earmarks plummeted to only 2,658 earmarks worth $13.2 billion in 2007, and 11,043 earmarks worth $14.1 billion in omnibus appropriations and related bills for 2008 — literally a reduction in the amount of earmarks by half. The group noted that in 2007 “[t]here are no indoor rain forests, National Peanut Festivals, mariachi music grants, or teapot museums to be found.”

Gifts from lobbyists are gone. Gifts and meals used to be the lobbyists’ common currency for influence peddling. Disgraced former lobbyist Jack Abramoff plied his trade with a special table in his restaurant for free wining and dining of lawmakers. Some Congressional staffers even used to hand their lunch checks to the nearest available lobbyist, who willingly paid.

You won’t see this type of behavior on Capitol Hill anymore. Gifts and meals from lobbyists — even organizations that employ lobbyists — are now banned.

Travel junkets are grounded. Travel junkets were another popular tool to increase lobbyist access. Members flew around the globe courtesy of lobbying organizations. In 2005, before Abramoff’s trips-for-favors scheme led to the crackdown, lawmakers took 1,340 trips at a cost of $3.6 million, frequently aboard corporate jets staffed with lobbyists.

At last count, lawmakers are traveling a fraction as often. According to CQ MoneyLine, in the first eight months of 2007, lawmakers took 337 privately sponsored trips worth $1.9 million.

And these trips are not junkets. They must be pre-approved, with an itinerary made available to the public. Lobbying organizations may sponsor one-day trips (or two days, if travel time so requires), just long enough to fly a Member in to give a speech at a conference. Corporate jets for this travel are effectively prohibited, and lobbyists cannot even tag along.

Lobbyists’ money is now an open book. The coup de grâce of the legislation is disclosure of that potentially corrupting nexus between lobbyists, money and lawmakers. Fundraising is the single most powerful tool wielded by lobbyists. When kept out of the public eye, corruption can breed.

Mitch Delk, former lobbyist for Freddie Mac, held 45 fundraisers in one election cycle for lawmakers overseeing the mortgage lending industry. After Public Citizen filed a Federal Election Commission complaint against Delk, the agency fined Freddie Mac $3.8 million. The fundraisers came to our attention largely because a fundraising firm unnecessarily boasted about them on the Web.

The new lobbying and ethics reform law brings this lobbyist fundraising out into the open, in a searchable, sortable and downloadable format on the Internet. We no longer have to rely on slip-up Web postings by those involved in illegal fundraising to catch the next Mitch Delk and Freddie Mac.

Lobbyists must electronically file financial activity reports every three months. Lawmakers who are convicted of serious felonies lose their Congressional pensions. Assuming adverse guidelines by the infamous House ethics committee will be reversed to comply with the new ethics rules, lobbyists no longer can host lavish parties at national conventions. And all of this information — earmarks, travel records, fundraising, lobbyist reports — will be posted on the Internet for everyone to see.

It is not “business as usual” on Capitol Hill. The business of Congress is now surprisingly transparent for the public to scrutinize, criticize and sometimes even praise.

Craig Holman is the Capitol Hill lobbyist for Public Citizen.