The Real Congressional Scandal

The obsession with earmarks obscures the real, and far more serious scandals of the political system.

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Dumping on Congress, always an entertaining parlor game, is now an industry unto itself, drawing in congressional "oversight" groups on the left and the right, the media, and, of course, campaigns. Much of it is legitimate; the public is rightly unhappy about the legislative branch's inability to come to terms on even seemingly noncontroversial matters.

But blaming Congress has become a default position. And there's been a disturbing and unfair tendency to presume that everything Congress and its members do is somehow rooted in self-interest or personal financial gain. And it obscures the real, and far more serious scandals of a political system that makes it extremely hard for public officials to make difficult budget choices and which rewards the demonization of those in public service.

[Read the U.S. News debate: Was 2011 One of the Worst Years for the U.S. Government in American History?]

John Feehery, president of Quinn Gillespie Communications and a former senior GOP Hill staffer, describes this trend brilliantly in a column in The Hill. In the must-read piece, Feehery rightly questions the conclusions contained in a Washington Post investigation of earmarks, money Congress sets aside for specific local projects. The budget items have long been derided as back-handed campaign contributions to incumbent lawmakers, and surely, some of them are silly projects that could be cut. But earmarks also can provide important funding for projects such as road repair and beach improvement (important for tourism in some states and therefore a contributor to new jobs) that otherwise might not get done. Readers love to complain about earmarks, which is why newspapers do "investigations" of them, but the amount of money the earmarks cost is miniscule. Reforming entitlements and rethinking tax cuts might be more politically painful ways of reducing the debt and deficit, but such topics don't get the same reader and viewer reaction as earmarks.

[Susan Milligan: Why It's Not Worth Slamming Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum on Earmarks]

Not only are the bigger, more serious problems being shunted aside for reports on the alleged scandal of earmarks, but the misfocus has damaged faith in democratic institutions. Feehery describes the fallout perfectly:

A whole industry has arisen that has one goal in mind: Make the Congress look bad. And guess what? It has worked.

Congressional approval ratings are hovering at around 10 percent, which means that if you ask 10 people what they think of Congress, nine will say that they are a bunch of bums. Congress has never been particularly popular, but by historic standards, this rating is at the absolute bottom. This is no accident. Congress and its members have endured a near-constant assault for more than a decade from a variety of special-interest groups that see bashing the legislative branch as a convenient way to advance their own interests.

[Read Peg McGlinch: Don’t Ban Earmarks--Fix Them]

The Post series, for example, sought to expose ways in which lawmakers and their family members benefited personally from earmarks they sponsored. But the evidence was sketchy, since, for example, a refurbished road that happens to run past a piece of property where a member had a financial interest still serves the entire community. The member may simply have wanted a better, safer road for his constituents. And that, after all, is part of what lawmakers are sent here to do: stand up for their districts.

The stories, while clearly exhaustively researched, also note with some discontent that it was difficult to figure out whether lawmakers had a personal interest in a particular earmark because they are not required to list their home addresses on their personal financial disclosure forms. We just had a member of Congress shot in the head—is it really a good idea to give every armed lunatic in the country a roadmap to assault her colleagues?

People are mad about how government is working, and they should be. But casting the individuals who hold office as a cadre of inherently corrupt and self-interested bums is not going to solve the problem. It's just going to diminish the very institutions of our democracy. It will also discourage good, well-intentioned people from public service. And that's the most damaging scandal of all.

  • Peter Fenn: Lawmakers Didn't Always Use Earmarks for Personal Gain
  • See political cartoons on the budget and deficit.
  • Read the U.S. News debate: Does the United States Need a Balanced Budget Amendment?