Randy Cunningham, the former Republican representative from California who has retired to a prison work camp in Arizona, is dictating the congressional agenda now more than he ever did when he was in office. The scandal caused by Cunningham’s practice of supplementing his official salary by exchanging government contracts for bribes is one of the main factors driving the new spending rules the House has approved and the Senate is considering.
Nearly every story about earmark reform, which is supposed to discourage legislators from using narrowly targeted spending to curry favor with donors and constituents, mentions Cunningham. Yet it’s hard to see how the reforms adopted by the House could have prevented his graft, since they include an exception for just the sort of earmarks he found most profitable.
Nor are the changes likely to stop members of Congress from trying to buy votes with taxpayers’ money. The reforms rely mainly on greater openness to shame legislators into better fiscal behavior, and when it comes to pork, legislators have no shame.
The new rules require House members to submit written requests for earmarks to the chairman of the relevant committee, identifying the recipient, describing the purpose and certifying that neither the sponsor nor his spouse has a financial interest in the expenditure. Information about earmarks in legislation considered by the House will be made available online.
But as Citizens Against Government Waste notes, these disclosure requirements do not cover earmarks designated for federal agencies, which are how Cunningham generated most of his graft income. Instead of allocating money directly to the two companies that paid him some $2.4 million in bribes, he obtained Defense Department project earmarks that resulted in contracts for them.
An inquiry by the House Intelligence Committee, on which Cunningham served, found he had bullied committee staffers into going along with the earmarks and pressured Pentagon officials into awarding the contracts. As a member of the House appropriations subcommittee in charge of defense spending, he had enough clout to overcome his enablers’ misgivings.
At least Cunningham had the decency to hide what he was doing. For legislators who brag about taking money from taxpayers around the country and spending it on parochial projects in their districts or states, the threat of publicity does not seem like much of a deterrent.
During the last election season, Rep. Charles Taylor (R-N.C.) created an interactive online map showing the pork he had won for each county in his district, including $1 million for an Appalachian wine institute, $2 million for an astronomy center in Transylvania County and $3 million for a local school "to promote healthy childhood development and prevent violence." In Montana, which ranks in the top 10 on lists of both per capita pork and federal spending per dollar of federal taxes, Republican Sen. Conrad Burns boasted of sponsoring some $2 billion in earmarks for the state.
"That money is going to be spent somewhere," Burns explained. "I want Montana to get first share." In a political culture with no respect for constitutional limits on federal spending, that attitude is sadly common.
But contrary to what politicians like Burns and Taylor seem to believe, the connection between pork-barrel spending and re-election is unclear. In his 1991 book "The Culture of Spending," political scientist James L. Payne concluded, based on data from the mid-1980s, that "a congressman’s support for spending does not seem to have any significant effect on his electoral showing." Payne also noted the political success of fiscal conservatives who pride themselves on eschewing earmarks.
It’s possible too much pork might even be bad for a politician. Both Taylor and Burns — who had served 16 and 18 years, respectively — lost their bids for re-election, perhaps partly because Cunningham’s corruption made the earmarks about which they bragged seem disreputable. If so, we can thank the crook for helping to restore some semblance of fiscal discipline.