Producer's Note from Marc Shaffer
Marc Shaffer talks about the two shows he has produced on earmarks for the EXPOSÉ: AMERICA'S INVESTIGATIVE REPORTS.
Please note that the views and opinions expressed by Mr. Shaffer are not necessarily the views and opinions held by Bill Moyers or BILL MOYERS JOURNAL.
Producer’s note: When it comes to answering specific questions about earmarks and the earmarking process, I leave that to David Heath, whose knowledge on the subject far exceeds my own.
But I’ll will make just a couple of prefatory remarks.
According to Congresspedia.com, what we call “pork barrel politics” - the practice of members of Congress directing federal funds to projects that specifically benefit their local constituents – is almost as old as the nation itself. The first case cited is the Bonus Bill of 1817, legislation proposed by South Carolina Democrat John Calhoun to construct highways linking the East and South of the United States to its Western frontier.
Flash forward a couple of centuries. In a massively expanded federal government, many see the job of their elected representatives to “bring home the bacon.” That’s why they brag about it in press releases. Senator Murray’s comment to David Heath that earmarks were in her view a good way to “help our state economically” explain their popularity. When re-election time comes around, it’s good to be able to cite the federal dollars you managed to get spent in the home district. In fact, in its endorsement of Congressman Norm Dicks for re-election in 2004, Heath’s paper the SEATTLE TIMES praised him as an “expert in the ways of Washington, D.C”., a “go-to guy” when it comes to getting federal funding for projects that serve the state of Washington.
It’s no wonder then, that between 1994 and 2005, the number and value of earmarks exploded. You can see the figures at http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/ABPub/2007/10/13/2003948684.pdf. After retaking Congress in 2006, the Democrats cut earmarks (how much is debated). If earmarks are good politics, why did the Democrats carve them back? They did so under pressure from the public to clean up government in the wake of earmark-related scandals involving Jack Abramoff and Duke Cunningham.
I have produced five EXPOSÉ: films, including “Quid Pro Quo,” which detailed the work of the reporters who uncovered Duke Cunningham’s corruption. It was a marvelous story, and a testament to the reporters’ instincts, skills and determination. They received a Pulitzer Prize for their reporting. The reason Duke Cunningham is sitting in federal prison, serving an eight year term for corruption, and not writing press releases bragging about bringing home the bacon to his San Diego district, is that he was caught taking a bribe. Working on pure instinct, reporter Marc Stern discovered a suspicious house deal in which an obscure defense contractor (working through a shell company) purchased Congressman Cunningham’s home at what turned out to be a vastly inflated price. That discovery led to a federal investigation in which, among other things, a “bribe menu” was uncovered – a list of bribes Congressman Cunningham had demanded from the home-buyer in return for military contracts he would deliver to his company using earmarks. It is this explicit exchange of favors that is illegal. Simply providing an earmark to a company whose employees provide you with campaign contributions without hard evidence of a relationship between the two is not. As Norm Dicks told David Heath: “If you went to a system where you couldn’t take a campaign contribution, then the only people . . . could get money from are people that you’ve never helped.”
The media has a bias towards covering stories like the Cunningham case. Epic tales of individual wrong-doing that are big and brassy, good yarns in which deception and immorality are at their core. They capture the imagination and sell papers. In journalism we call those “gotcha” stories – as in “we gotcha.” Not only do these tales play to the public fascination with betrayal at the highest levels, they have the added benefit of casting reporters in the role of hero – the folks who uncover the wrong-doing so that it can be corrected, justice served. But gotcha stories have a shortcoming. They cast corruption in narrow terms, often ignoring the broader social forces that individual wrongdoing reflects. They’re about breaking the rules of the game, rather than about problems with the game itself. (To their credit, in follow up investigations Stern and his colleagues went beyond the narrow particulars of the Cunningham case to look more broadly at earmarks.)
Coming off the “Quid Pro Quo” film, what immediately impressed me about the work of David Heath and Hal Bernton is that their story, while possessing a few gotchas, was about the game itself. Everyone was playing by the rules. Their story, and their online database, placed the failed earmarks they write about in the context of the earmark system itself and allowed all of us to understand that this is not only about a few renegade Northwest legislators.
One of the writers expressed surprise that more reporters haven’t done what Heath did. As we describe in our film, Heath spent more than a year on this report. Few newspapers I suspect would spend that kind of time (and money) on an investigation like this. And Heath may not say so, but he is well-known within investigative journalism circles as a master in what is called “computer assisted reporting” - using computers to make sense out of data. This isn’t just surfing Google (although that’s part of it), but its knowing what records exist, how to get them, and how to manipulate them using various computer programs in order to see patterns. Few reporters possess those skills, and without them David couldn’t have done the story.
Defenders of earmarks, such as Senator Murray, often claim that without earmarks only the well-connected big contractors – the SAICs, Halliburtons and Boeings – would get federal contracts. Earmarks, they say, direct federal money towards valuable projects run by little folks far from the Washington beltway.
Without the degree of scrutiny that Heath and Bernton brought, that claim cannot be tested. The debate over earmarks is reduced to the kind of ideological he-said, she-said that has turned so many Americans away from engaging in their political process. By painstakingly constructing their data base to follow the money, and then carefully scrutinizing three profoundly flawed earmarks, picked nearly at random, Heath and Bernton pierce the rhetoric to raise real doubts as to the worthiness of all earmarks.
This is what great reporting does – it holds elected officials and others in power accountable, not with a barbed tongue, but with masterfully uncovered facts.