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Below you find all four sessions of the Citizens Class for "Capitol Crimes" Citizens Class: Abramoff, Inc.

Should U.S. territories be subject to the same laws as the United States itself. If so, why? If not, why not?

Backgrounder: Abramoff, Inc.
One aspect of the unfolding Abramoff scandal involved the Marianas, a U.S. territory in the Pacific that Congress exempted from the U.S. minimum wage and immigration laws. The islands are home to Chinese-owned factories, where low-wage workers were imported from China and the Philippines and forced into slave labor conditions, living in squalid shacks behind barbed wire, to produce "Made in the USA" goods. As pressure built in the mid-1990s for a bill to impose U.S. laws on the islands, Abramoff was pitching his client-the government of the Marianas-as a regulation-free paradise and taking lawmakers there on luxury junkets ... [more]

Class Is in Session...

The scattered islands of the U.S. Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, which lie roughly halfway between Hawaii and the Philippines and just north of Guam, cover a mere 179 square miles and have a population of just 82,459. Yet they have figured prominently in the house of cards that Jack built. The Marianas Islands



In 1995, Abramoff took on the government of the Northern Marianas in Saipan as a client and for the next six years lobbied key Washington lawmakers to maintain a hands-off approach to the sweatshop economy blossoming there. According to Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), of all the improprieties, fraud and corruption in which Abramoff engaged, "[his] most damaging and most indefensible work was to protect … sweatshops located in this U.S. territory."

Former Senator Frank Murkowski said of the Islands in a 1998 Senate hearing..."We saw living conditions that simply should not exist in the United States of America…." And why, as immigrant workers churned out millions of garments for top labels from The Gap to Jones New York - featuring the "Made in the U.S.A." label-did the U.S. Congress fail to ensure that proper worker safety and minimum wage standards were being met? Murkowski queried: "How could we have in the United States working conditions like this under the US flag?" The answers to these questions lead directly back to the controversial relationship between Abramoff, former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) and other important figures in government.

Made for America

Aside from Puerto Rico, the Northern Mariana Islands are the only other insular commonwealth of the United States. The arrangement, which began in 1978, grants all indigenous inhabitants of the islands American citizenship and allows them to elect a local island government but excludes the right to vote in U.S. presidential elections. The government of the Northern Marianas benefits from substantial U.S. federal funds-in the form of subsidies and development assistance-administered by the Department of the Interior. The United States benefits by having a strategic military site in the Pacific.

Under the terms of their commonwealth agreement, the Northern Marianas also maintained the right to label "Made in the U.S.A." all products manufactured on the islands — despite the fact that they had been given exemption from some federal labor laws, customs laws, immigration laws, quotas and tariffs laws By the late 1980s, this state of affairs had become a boon both for the island's garment industry and for a slew of American apparel giants who could count on abundant cheap labor without sacrificing the sacred "U.S.A." label.

During those years, the Northern Mariana's garment and textile businesses exploded, with companies importing tens of thousands of foreign workers from China, the Philippines, Thailand, Cambodia, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh to stitch in their factories for roughly half the American minimum wage. These immigrants often paid thousands of dollars to loan sharks to bring them to Saipan with the promise of work and spent months, if not years, paying off their debts, if they found work at all. Workers were often housed in barracks behind barbed-wire fences, often in unsafe, overcrowded and unhygienic conditions, and were charged exorbitant amounts for their room and board.

In the early 1990s, the U.S. Department of Labor began looking into allegations of garment industry worker abuses, focusing on factories owned by one of Saipan's biggest employers, Willie Tan. In 1992, the department filed suit against Tan and ordered him to pay $9 million in back wages and damages to workers at five of his plants-at the time, the largest fine ever imposed by the Department of Labor. The suit alleged that employees were forced to work more than 80 hours a week, below the islands' already low minimum wage and with no overtime. Further, workers were kept locked inside their barracks and were not allowed to leave during their off-work hours

Tan and his associates in the government of the Northern Marianas looked to American lobbyists for protection against potential federal regulation. Jack Abramoff was one of those lobbyists.

Enter Abramoff

Abramoff pocketed nearly $8 million from his contracts with Saipan between 1995 and 2001, according to the Northern Marianas' public auditor. And with the help of Tom DeLay (R-Texas) and others he accomplished his goal of keeping congressional hands off the commonwealth's sweatshops, despite a growing public outcry over the continuing abuse of immigrant workers.

Between 1995 and 1998 — in testimony before Congress; in investigations by the Department of Labor and the Department of the Interior; in congressional fact-finding missions; and in numerous media accounts, including a report which aired on ABC's 20/20 as "The Shame of Saipan"-the mistreatment of nearly 18,000 workers in the Northern Marianas became widely known. The public and the nation's lawmakers heard tales of women forced to undergo abortions in order to keep their jobs, of women and young girls guaranteed jobs in the restaurant industry only to find that they would be working as prostitutes; of long hours with no overtime and illegally substandard pay; of foul living conditions and beatings and humiliations.

In 1997, no doubt in partial response to these accounts, the Clinton administration wrote to the Marianas' elected leader, Governor Froilan Tenorio, that "certain labor practices in the islands ...are inconsistent with our country's values," and made mention of reforming the commonwealth's labor and immigration laws to bring them into line with those of the United States.

Tom DeLay visited Saipan in for the New Years holiday 1997/1998 — at the invitation of Abramoff, whom DeLay called one of his "closest and dearest friends." DeLay's trip — which boasted luxury hotels, fine white-sand beaches and several premier golf courses — was paid for by the government of the Northern Marianas and was one of a number of junkets the government sprung for at the urging of Abramoff.

When DeLay returned to Washington, he kept his promise to his clients in the Northern Marianas regarding federal regulation. Although the Senate in 1999 passed legislation that would have stipulated that any garment bearing a "Made in the U.S.A." label would have to be made by American workers, and more than 200 members of the House co-sponsored similar legislation the same year, the efforts were never made into law.

Willie Tan, the Saipan garment giant was captured on hidden camera by by Global Survival Network saying that DeLay had effectively told him not to worry about the legislation. According to Tan, "[Delay] said, 'Willie, if they elect me majority whip, I make the schedule of the Congress, and I'm not going to put it on the schedule.' So Tom told me, 'Forget it, Willie. No chance.' "

In 2000, Republican Sen. Frank Murkowski of Alaska authored a bill that would have extended U.S. labor protections and minimum-wage laws to the Northern Marianas. The Senate bill passed with unanimous consent. Again, it died in the House. But a number of class actions suits filed on behalf of garment workers in Saipan have fared better. In 2004 the workers dismissed their remaining lawsuit after having won a $20 million settlement with 26 U.S. retailers and 23 Saipan garment factories.

Discussion:

  • Should U.S. territories be subject to the same laws as the United States itself. If so, why? If not, why not?
  • What kinds of changes could we make to the Congressional power structure that would prevent one or two individuals from allowing a debate on legislation? What are the pros and cons to those changes?
  • What do you think about the ability of foreign companies to lobby the US government? What kinds of restrictions, if any, should be placed on foreign companies vs. domestic companies?

Citizens Class: Congressional Ethics

Should Congress be allowed to set its own ethic rules and police itself when it comes to ethics matters?

(Transcripts of video clips are at the end of the document.)

Backgrounder: Congressional Ethics
A recent poll found that only 25% of American were satisfied with the job Congress is doing for them. Questions over ethics may play a part in that low rating. Just what are the rules that are meant to ensure that elected representatives aren't swayed by constituents or special interests? The House of Representatives own Web site publishes a list of FAQs for its members. Among the most asked questions: A state university in the Member's home state has offered the Member tickets to one of its basketball games. Can the Member accept? Find out more about the rules and the rules committee... more]

Class Is in Session...

Bill Moyers talked with Thomas Frank, author of WHAT'S THE MATTER WITH KANSAS: HOW CONSERVATIVES WON THE HEART OF AMERICA and Norman Ornstein of the conservative American Enterprise Institute and long-time Washington observer about the particular problems exhibited by the Abramoff scandal, and the general problems that perplex a political and campaign system that runs on money. Frank suggests that the problem goes deeper than guys just "gaming the system" but is a product of contempt for government. Ornstein, commented on the ethics process itself: "Part of it is Congress basically took their ethics process and threw it out the window more than a decade ago, partly because we were into these wars between the parties where we were criminalizing policy differences. When you lose an ethics process, you lose a sensitivity to some of these questions of what you're doing on a day-to-day basis."

Watch the video

Study finds almost $50 million spent on travel

The Center for Public Integrity, American Public Media and Northwestern University's Medill News Service conducted a nine-month analysis of congressional disclosure forms for travel January 2000 through June 2005. "Privately Sponsored Trips Hot Tickets on Capitol Hill" showed that during that 5 ½ year period, members of Congress and their aides took at least 23,000 trips valued at almost $50 million. Private sponsors - corporations, trade associations and nonprofit groups financed these trips.

Congressional ethics rules seem explicit:

  • Lobbyist-paid travel is forbidden.
  • Sponsored trips must be connected to their official duties.
  • All staffer's trips must be cleared in advance.
  • No gift of $50 or more may be accepted.
In this session we will review the findings of The Center for Public Integrity repor, exploring some of the difficulties in interpreting, enforcing and monitoring rules that, on the surface, seem straightforward.

Tracking the source

Despite the rules banning travel on a lobbyist's nickel, the study by The Center for Public Integrity found that 90 trips taken between January 2000 through June 2005 and valued at $145,000 were sponsored or co-sponsored by firms registered to lobby the federal government. Some would argue that this only represents a small fraction (4% of the number of trips taken and only .29% of the money spent). However, there may be other reasons for alarm.

For one thing, it is often difficult to determine the source of the funding or the relationship between the sponsor and a registered lobbyist. Nonprofits may be set up intentionally by a lobbying agency (as in the case of "shell" or "pass through" nonprofits set up by Jack Abramoff) or may simply be used as a conduit for funds from the lobbyist's clients. In addition, critics of the current system charge, reporting standards themselves, and policing of the reports are minimal.

In the "GIMME FIVE"- INVESTIGATION OF TRIBAL LOBBYING MATTERS, the Committee uncovered numerous instances of nonprofit organizations that appeared to be involved in activities unrelated to their mission as described to the Internal Revenue Service. The Committee also observed tax exempt organizations apparently serving as or being used as extensions of for-profit lobbying operations.

The full extent of this problem is not known, but concerns about the source of funding for trips has led some to call for an outright ban on privately funded trips. In a Letter to the Chairman of the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct for the House, a coalition of reform groups urged, "If members of Congress are traveling on official business for public purposes, it is the public that should pay for such trips, not private interests." (Campaign Legal Center, Public Citizen, Democracy 21, U.S. PIRG, League of Women Voters)

Regardless of whether travel is privately or publicly financed, there may still be opportunities for abuse. Here are some other concerns that have been raised regarding congressional travel.

Other concerns

Is it "access" or "excess"? That's a question members of the public could easily ask about the extravagant perks ($500-a-night hotel rooms) and lavish add-ons ($25,000 corporate jet rides) enjoyed by members of Congress. Of the 23,000 trips taken between January 2000 through June 2005:

  • 2,300 cost $5,000 or more
  • 500 cost $10,000 or more
  • 16 cost $25,000 or more
Congressional ethics rules state that trips shouldn't be "substantially recreational in nature." Critics are skeptical that this rule is observed pointing to the number of trips to vacation destinations, the sketchy itineraries submitted as justification, the presence of spouses who also travel at the expense of the sponsors and the length of time spent at those destinations.

Another finding of the report is that disclosure forms are inadequate. Not only are they incomplete, they ask only the bare minimum of information - certainly not enough for the public to determine whether the trip was justified. "Fact finding", a commonly cited justification is hardly informative. Critics of the current reporting system say that these reporting slights are themselves a clear violation of ethics rules. But the main problem may lie with the oversight of the whole system.

What others are saying

In January 2006, Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert suggested that an outright ban might solve the problems highlighted by the Abramoff scandal. But support for such a ban remains slim. According to The Center for Public Integrity, in a March 9 letter, representatives of 35 religious and human-rights groups urged House Speaker Dennis Hastert not to change the travel rules "in a fashion that will impede the continued ability of House Members and staff to travel on educational and fact-finding missions funded by non-governmental organizations"

The question remains how to develop a travel policy that enables members of Congress to spend time outside of Washington meeting with the public and educating themselves about critical issues in a way that is ethical, above reproach, and fiscally wise. A 2006 reform proposal in the Senate would prohibit lobbyists from going along on trips and require more thorough disclosure - full itineraries would be required.

Discussion

  • Should Congress be allowed to set its own ethic rules and police itself when it comes to ethics matters? What kind of system could you envision that would be a good alternative?
  • The business of governance like most other businesses requires travel. We learned that Congressional travel rules seem pretty clear, so what procedures or rules can you think of that would prevent abuse of travel by our representatives?


BEGIN VIDEO CLIP — BILL MOYERS TALKS WITH NORMAN ORNSTEIN AND THOMAS FRANK

BILL MOYERS: What has happened to the moral compass?

THOMAS FRANK: Well, it's you know, it's been demagnetized by the money. And then you've got to remember one other thing. What I'm trying to supply here are ways to-- in which this scandal is linked to a certain political way of looking at the world. It's not just a bunch of guys that-- that saw a chance and took it. I mean, it is that, obviously. In the same way that Enron was. These are guys gaming the system. Or WorldCom, or all the accounting stuff that you saw in the 1990s. Guys that figured out how they could do it and they did it. But it's also the product of contempt for government. Okay?

BILL MOYERS: Do you agree with that?

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: I think there's a lot of-a lot of truth to that. Part of it is Congress basically took their ethics process and threw it out the window more than a decade ago, partly because we were into these wars between the parties where we were criminalizing policy differences. When you lose an ethics process, you lose a sensitivity to some of these questions of what you're doing on a day-to-day basis. And everybody-- or lots of people became a part of that. And there are Democrats-- just as there are Republicans who have gone so far over to the dark side that they're going to end up serving very long prison sentences. It happens when you don't have any kind of boundaries in place. And these guys were happy to remove the boundaries 'cause they could stay in power that way.

BILL MOYERS: But the Speaker of the House removed the boundaries on the Ethics Committee when it started getting close to Tom DeLay.

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: That I found----outrageous things I have ever seen.

THOMAS FRANK: compound the outrage? Apparently Michael Scanlon you-- I'm sure you know this-- has written a master's thesis at-

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: Johns Hopkins. Yes.

THOMAS FRANK: --at Johns Hopkins about how the Ethics Committee is-- is always already compromised.

BILL MOYERS: So you wrote recently that the leaders of Congress have shown they don't really care if their colleagues are taking bribes or using hookers or whether there's oversight of crooked contracting. I mean, is-- has this become a culture of corruption?

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: It has become a culture of corruption. In a way, I cringe when Democrats have used it as a campaign phrase, because I don't want it to become a partisan element here. This is a culture of corruption. It's wrong-headed. It's bad for the country. And we're only now starting to see some corrective mechanisms in place.

END CLIP


Citizens Class: The Land of Lobby

What kind of changes do you think need to happen when it comes to lobbying in America that would help level the playing field for all those interested in being heard by government?

(Transcripts of video clips are at the end of the document.)

Backgrounder: The Land of Lobby
Political folklore has it that the term "lobbying" originated during the presidency of Ulysses S. Grant, when, brandy in one hand, cigar in the other, the former general would plant himself in the lobby of his favorite hotel and wait for the public to come offering and asking for favors ... [more]

Class Is in Session...

Over the past five years, the number of lobbyists in Washington has doubled to nearly 35,000; the yearly amount spent on lobbying has increased by nearly a billion dollars to $2.3 billion; and today more than 230 former congressmen, now lobbyists, continue walk the halls of the Hill, attempting to influence the way current congressmen vote. Is there too much lobbying going on? What happens to democracy when so much money and effort are poured into selling the agendas of special interests to our elected officials?

"Congress has always had, and always will have, lobbyists and lobbying," says former Senate Majority Leader Robert Byrd. "We could not adequately consider our workload without them." But he also stresses the need for vigilance. "The history of this institution demonstrates the need for eternal vigilance to ensure that lobbyists do not abuse their role, that lobbying is carried on publicly with full publicity, and that the interests of all citizens are heard without giving special ear to the best organized and most lavishly funded."

To be clear, not all lobbyists represent big business, not all of them are Abramoff-style operators and not all of them toe the line between legality and criminal corruption. In fact, most lobbyists are respectable folks legitimately conveying the interests of organized groups to those whose actions and votes have an effect on the way we live in America. They may represent churches, universities, charities, senior citizens groups or environmental concerns, or they may represent Enron or the Northern Mariana Islands. Basically, a lobbyist's job is to persuade lawmakers to view an issue in their clients' interest and will urge them to vote in a way that benefits their clients, whether that means more federal research contracts for a college in a congressman's district, more affordable drug prescriptions for the elderly or bigger tax loopholes for corporations.

For years, the reality has been that people must organize in order to have their voices heard in politics. From the very early days of Congress, citizens have joined together in order to lobby with greater efficacy: The representatives of shipwrights lobbied lawmakers on the effects of tariffs; merchants' lobbyists pushed for an end to the tax on molasses; federal clerks requested an increase in pay; military officers sought reimbursement for personal funds expended during the Revolution. In short, individuals with common interests banded together and selected someone to plead their case before Congress, the White House or any other body that had the power to influence the situation. And so lobbying became an efficacious and accepted form of political activity. (Read a history from lobbying from the U.S. Senate.)

Bill Moyers talked with Thomas Frank, author of WHAT'S THE MATTER WITH KANSAS: HOW CONSERVATIVES WON THE HEART OF AMERICA and Norman Ornstein of the conservative American Enterprise Institute and long-time Washington observer about the particular problems exhibited by the Abramoff scandal, and the general problems that perplex a political and campaign system that runs on money — a great deal of money. Ornstein is particuarly troubled by the "earmarking" process in which representatives can use a legislative manuever, without great oversight, to steer federal appropraitions monies to pet projects...and possibly to campaign contributors. (You can learn more about earmarks in the "Fixing the System" Citizens Class.) Watch the video

You can find out how much money is being spent to lobby for the things you care about. Take a look here OpenSecrets.org to find out if you are being represented by a lobbyist in Congress. To see how many lobbyists are working in your state legislature, visit Public Integrity. Amazingly, in Washington, there are approximately 65 lobbyists for each member of the House.

By law, all registered lobbyists working on the Hill are required to publicly disclose which issues and bills they have worked on-in recent years, less than half of lobbyists have filed their disclosure forms in a timely manner, if at all. Increased scrutiny by both the public and oversight agencies could help the situation — especially in the age of the Internet. Watchdog groups fault the House for lagging behind the Senate. which maintains a broadly searchable database of electronic images of lobbying forms. [Read the report and find out about additional reform efforts.]

Big Money and Big Problems

There is no doubt: Lobbying is big business and it's growing. And choosing the right lobbyist can be very lucrative. For a relatively small investment in a lobbying campaign, corporations can receive a gargantuan return. THE WASHINGTON POST reported that one lobbying firm, the Carmen Group, calculated that for every $1 million its clients spend on its services, it delivers, on average, $100 million in government benefits.

Lobbyists and their firms contribute heaps of cash to political campaigns, attend or host fundraisers and even act as fundraisers and campaign treasurers themselves. According to the Center for Public Integrity, since 1998, nearly 80 members of Congress have tapped congressional lobbyists to serve as treasurers of their campaign committees and as leaders of their political action committees. Says Common Cause, "lobbyists raise campaign funds because they want to become indispensable to people in power, knowing that the service they perform will be rewarded by the access and influence they gain."

The following figures give a good idea of just how interlocking the worlds of politics and lobbying are:

  • 232 former members of Congress are now registered lobbyists.

  • Nearly 40 members of Congress retain lobbyists as treasurers of their re-election campaigns or political action committees.

  • 12 former registered lobbyists have been hired to work in various offices of the White House, sometimes formulating public policy about the various issues they once lobbied.

  • More than 1,300 registered lobbyists have personally given more than 1.8 million to George Bush over the last six years
The Revolving Door

Another issue of concern is the number of congressional staffers, executive staffers and former members of Congress taking highly lucrative jobs as lobbyists. According to a study by Public Citizen, 43 percent of eligible members of Congress who left office since 1998 have become lobbyists. During that same period, 273 former White House staffers also registered as lobbyists. While some see this as a logical move into a position where they can best apply their skills, it also raises concerns that tenure in Congress is just a stepping-stone toward a highly paid job as a lobbyist. In convincing Rep. Robert W. Ney not to run for re-election, House Majority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) reportedly told Ney that if he lost his House seat for the party, he could not expect a lucrative career on K Street-the avenue of the lobbyists.

Even though there is a one-year moratorium on taking a job as a lobbyist, members of Congress and staff often bypass the moratorium by joining lobbying firms as advisors and not registered lobbyists. Common Cause has called for an increase in the moratorium from one year to two years, and to expand the definition of lobbying. The plea agreements of both Congressman Bob Ney and his former Chief of Staff Neil Volz cite violations of the one-year waiting period. [Read the report and the Ney plea agreement (PDF).]

While "Capitol Crimes" looked primarily at the abuses perpetrated by Jack Abramoff, there have been at least half a dozen other politicians and lobbyists tainted by lobbying scandals this year alone. And with the large pot of lobby money, the growing cost of campaigns, the and lawmakers willing to trade favors for funding, it seems likely that-barring a major ethics overhaul-this kind of behavior will continue.

Discussion:

  • You've watched the documentary and read the accompanying materials. Come up with three government or lobbying reform ideas that if they had been instituted before the Abramoff scandal would have prevented it.
  • Take a pro and con position about lobbying: when is it a necessary part of the democratic process, when does it harm the democratic process? Can you envision a healthy democratic system without some form of organized lobbying?
  • What kind of changes do you think need to happen when it comes to lobbying in America that would help level the playing field for all those interested in being heard by government?


BEGIN VIDEO CLIP — BILL MOYERS TALKS WITH NORMAN ORNSTEIN AND THOMAS FRANK

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: You've got people on both sides actually, who are stalwarts in trying to stop this process from-- from moving forward. They've been in the minority. A lot of members don't want to get discomfort. They've lived kind of nicely the-- the way that things have been going. You know, I-- I would add, having been in Washington for 37 years, now I see a level of spending and conspicuous consumption that I just didn't see before. The fact is when you've got a three trillion dollar economy, and now you take 30, 40, $50 billion out of that, you know, chump change in a way-- and say to every member of Congress, you've got a few hundred million you can play with. You are the king over a few hundred million dollars.

BILL MOYERS: These are the earmarks?

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: The earmarks.

BILL MOYERS: Earmark, as I understand it, means that a congressman-- a member of Congress can direct that money be given, sent directly to a project without going through a public agency.

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: And without going through any kind of vetting or cost benefit analysis, in effect. And it's done through appropriations. It's done through authorizations. It's done through academic earmarking, getting money going to a particular university. It's also-- it's surreptitiously steering contracts, like defense contracts. That's what Randy "Duke" Cunningham did in return for $2.4 million in bribes.

END CLIP


BEGIN CLIP

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: There are some reforms that would make a difference. Primarily, in this case, we need an Ethics Committee and an ethics process that has some outside involvement to-- have--

BILL MOYERS: So it's not members in Congress running.

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: --not just members of Congress. The Constitution says they make the ultimate decision. But you've got to have some better vetting process. There are states like Florida and Kentucky that manage to do this reasonably effectively. We've got to change this earmarking process and bring some honesty to it. And we're far from being able to do that. And we've got to have--

BILL MOYERS: In other words, you could publicize who is sponsoring the earmark so that I would know Norman Ornstein has sent an earmark over to a campaign contribution.

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: And so that you can look into the behavior of individual members and staffers-- which may be related to those earmarks. And--

BILL MOYERS: But if reform has to come from the people who have benefited from the system, are we going to get reform?

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: We're going to get reform if and when they believe that the public will have the tar-- cooking and the feathers waiting if they don't do reform. We're not there yet, Bill.

THOMAS FRANK: Can I say two things about this question? First of all, the-- the people who are in charge now have a vested interest in increasing our cynicism. They are the party of cynicism against government.

And when they do these things, that's just an added benefit that they-- that they've managed to get the cynicism numbers up where they have, that's good for the Republican Party, the party that tells you that what? Remember what President Reagan used to say about government, you know? It was a joke, the idea that they were here to help you, all that stuff.

The second point I want to make is go back to the 19th century, the sort of parallel experience to what we're going through now. You had a series of reformers come up in the 19th century. And every single one of them from, you know, Horace Greeley all up to the 1890s failed miserably, you know, were rejected in huge sweep-- I mean, the corruptionists just whipped these guys.

It was a piece of cake. It was easy. The only thing that-- what really changed it is when reform became a broader thing, when it became-- progressivism. And when it became-- you know, look at society as a whole. We're going to change the-- the entire direction that we're moving in. When, I'm talking about here people like Teddy Roosevelt and Franklin Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. That's when this stuff started to abate. Not-- not before that.

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: You know, one problem we have here is what we really need is politicians. Politicians understand the nature of politics and the importance of the institutions. How to do give and take and compromises in an effective fashion. What's happening now is where this flame of cynicism in the public, somebody pops up and says, "I'm not a politician."

And we say, "Okay, great. We'll elect you." And what we get are people who are on an ideological crusade, people who have a contempt for politics and believe that it is all sleaze, everybody does it. So bribery is a way of life.

END CLIP


Citizens Class: Fixing the System

How would you reform the American political system?

(Transcripts of video clips are at the end of the document.)

Backgrounder: Fixing the System
An Earmark is a stipulation inserted into a bill by an individual member or members of Congress requiring that a portion of the funds provided through that legislation, rather than going into a general agency fund, must be spent on a particular project or given to a particular recipient. Earmark reform got a special mention in the President's State of the Union address and was, until recently, under scrutiny on the floor of Congress. In September 2006, The House of Representatives passed an internal rule that would require lawmakers to sign their names to some of the items they sponsor as special-interest provisions into major tax and spending bills. Critics say the reform doesn't go nearly far enough... [more]

Class Is in Session...
The Abramoff scandal has politicians and the public taking a hard look at the relationship between money and politics once again. Indeed, in his 2006 State of the Union address, President George W. Bush singled out a common part of the budget process for criticism-earmarks. "I am pleased that members of Congress are working on earmark reform," he told the country, "because the federal budget has too many special interest projects."

So what exactly are earmarks, and why are they causing so much trouble? Generally speaking, an earmark is a stipulation inserted into a bill by an individual member or members of Congress requiring that a portion of the funds provided through that legislation, rather than going into a general agency fund, must be spent on a particular project or given to a particular recipient. For example, as part of the 2005 Federal Transportation Equity Act, $223 million was earmarked specifically for the construction of a bridge in Alaska that would connect a town of 9,000 people to an island of 50-those funds could be used for nothing else. Taxpayers and a number of politicians complained that the appropriation seemed exorbitant given the number of people who would benefit, and eventually, after a bitter battle, the earmark was removed from the legislation.

But the bridge example points up some of the problems associated with earmarks, namely that they tie the hands of government agencies charged with determining what projects are necessary and allocating funds for those projects, and that they frequently award contracts that are not subject to competitive bidding, public hearing or review. In short, earmarking often allow lawmakers to bypass normal budgetary procedures in order to ensure that their pet projects receive funding. Naturally, this can lead to corruption, kickbacks and the like.

Most Americans are familiar with the phrase pork barrel politics-government spending that benefits the constituents of a politician in return for their political support. To be clear, not all earmarks qualify as pork barrel spending. Citizens Against Government Waste has been tracking pork barrel spending for the past 16 years; they distinguish pork barrel spending as line-item appropriations or earmarks that circumvent normal procedures for review. In other words, not every earmark is a pork barrel by their definition. Citizens Against Government Waste estimates that earmarks have grown rapidly — from 1,300 in 1994 to 14,000 last year.

Watch the video

However, the guilty plea of former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R-Calif.) and an investigation into West Virginia Democrat Alan Mollohan have raised questions about earmarks and the lack of oversight. Politicians and the public are concerned that earmarks, whether used as currency for re-election or as political favors to well-connected individuals or businesses, can corrupt the political process.

History

Earmarking has become so pervasive that it would be easy to assume that this is the way Congress has always worked. Garnering monies and projects for constituents is how legislators demonstrate that they are working on behalf of the people they represent-they are "bringing home the bacon." But earmarking did not become common practice until the 1980s. Throughout our early history, Congressional spending was limited to the powers enumerated in the Constitution. President James Monroe foreshadowed the recent abuses of the earmark system when he argued that federal money should be limited to great national works only. "If [the use of federal money] were unlimited, it would be liable to abuse and might be productive of evil," he said.

Concerns

Some critics of earmarks argue that federal tax dollars should not be used for local projects. An editorial in The Hill, the newspaper for and about Congress, stated that "[earmarks] also reveal congressional intrusion into nooks and crannies where every previous generation-not just the Founding Fathers-would have understood the federal government to have no proper business." (Read a editorial from THE HILL, September 6, 2006, )

But perhaps the greatest concern about earmarks is that they invite corruption. The Cunningham bribery scandal opens the question of whether there are other cases in which unscrupulous contractors have persuaded members to support earmarks, not based on what it might do for their Congressional districts, but what it could do for them personally. Cunningham, a California Republican, resigned from the House last year after pleading guilty to accepting $2.4 million in bribes in exchange for help in securing Defense Department contracts.

Since earmarks are not subject to debate, many people are concerned that they can be used secretly as bargaining chips for personal gain or to reward campaign contributors. Lobbyists work to get earmarks slipped into appropriation bills on behalf of their clients. The client then returns the favor by contributing to the campaign of the member who secured the earmark. Staffers who have hopes of securing a high salary down the road as an appropriations lobbyist may also be tempted to push earmarks through on behalf of lobbyists. Remember this from the documentary? When Abramoff moved from one lobby company to another, he recruited seven former to aides to lawmakers who more than doubled their salaries.

According to the Congressional Research Service, the number of earmarks in appropriations bills alone more than tripled to 15,887 in 2005 from 4,155 in 1994 -- and most of them were shepherded by lobbyists. To those critical of the earmark process, earmarks are a currency of corruption.

Another concern frequently cited, is the lack of transparency in the process. Earmarks are individual efforts and are not subject to debate - a lobbyist may only have to convince only one legislator to move their case forward. Without scrutiny, there is no guarantee that the money is being spent wisely. Allocations of $50 million for an indoor rain forest in Coralville, Iowa and $1.4 million for various Halls of Fame including $70,000 for the Paper Industry International Hall of Fame in Appleton, Wisconsin are just a few examples of waste and abuse cited in the 2006 Pig Book.

But the unwise allocation of funding may be even subtler. For example, academic earmarks are rarely screened for quality. This may result divert money going to a member's pet project rather than the institution best suited to conduct the research. Several universities, including MIT and the University of Michigan (except for rare occasions), have resolved not to accept any funds which come for earmarks. Their reasoning - such projects are generally not peer reviewed and thus run counter to scientific and research policies. (Read the MIT and University of Michigan policies.)

Even more troubling to some is the lack of accountability. It is often difficult to determine who is responsible for inserting the earmark. In response, The Examiner newspapers joined with the Sunlight Foundation, Porkbusters.org, and Citizens Against Government Waste in posting the database of earmarks in the Labor-HHS appropriations and inviting readers to help identify the congressmen behind each earmark. They are calling on citizens to be part of an army of citizen journalists that will "shine some much-needed light on spending decisions made behind closed doors by powerful Members of Congress" by calling their Congressional representative and asking if they inserted the earmarks listed in their district.

Citizens Against Government Waste cited a additional concerns about earmarks and called for reform of the practice in a policy briefing, "All About Pork: The Abuse of Earmarks and the Needed Reforms" (Read the briefing.)


Earmark Reform Efforts

This backlash of the recent scandals encouraged several Members of Congress led to a frenzied 51 new pieces of legislation by early April 2006 designed to discourage some of these practices. The two pieces of legislation most often cited for their potential to make significant changes are the Lobbying Transparency and Accounting Act of 2005 (S. 2128) and the Pork-Barrel Reduction Act (S. 2265).

The Pork-Barrel Reduction Act sponsored by Sen John McCain (R-AZ) requires that:

  • no new or general legislation nor any unauthorized appropriation may be included in any general appropriation bill;
  • no amendment may be received to any general appropriation bill that would add an unauthorized appropriation;
  • no new or general legislation nor any unauthorized appropriation, new matter, or non-germane matter may be included in any conference report on a general appropriation bill;
  • no unauthorized appropriation may be included in any amendment between the chambers in relation to a general appropriation bill.
The Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act sponsored by Sen. Barak Obama (D-IL) does the following:
  • Creates a database that names recipients and dollar amounts of most federal grants, contracts, and loans. These will be searchable online and available to the public.
  • Identifies so-called pork-barrel projects, or earmarks, in the searchable database. The database will not necessarily name lawmakers who added an earmark, but it will reveal the congressional district where the federal money will go.
  • Gives the White House Office of Management & Budget the job of managing the online database. (Read more about the database from THE CHRISTIAN SCIENCE MONITOR.)
The Heritage Foundation, a think tank that formulates and promotes conservative public policies, supports these two bills saying, "enactment of these two bills, would deter some of the more outrageous lobbying and legislative practices related to earmarks." Further they call for even tougher provisions including:
  • disclosure of family relationships,
  • disclosure of campaign contributions paid by a client or lobbyist to a Member's charitable affiliate, and
  • a reasonably precise definition of an earmark that would prevent the congressional abuses that transfer valuable public resources to other interests for reasons based solely on influence and privilege. (Read the Heritage Foundations' briefing.)
To check the status of these and other pieces of legislation, go to http://thomas.loc.gov/ and enter the bill number.

Bill Moyers talked with Thomas Frank, author of WHAT'S THE MATTER WITH KANSAS: HOW CONSERVATIVES WON THE HEART OF AMERICA and Norman Ornstein of the conservative American Enterprise Institute about ways to combat earmark abuse and other ethics issues raised by the ties between money and power. Norman Ornstein advocates a greater oversight and visibilty for the process for a start. Both Washington observers think the problem runs far deeper than earmarks.

Watch the video Following the Money

According to THE WASHINGTON POST, "annual fees paid to registered lobbyists reached $2.1 billion in 2004...a 40 percent increase from 1999. For 2005, lobbying revenue is on pace to rise by at least $300 million." THE HILL reported in January 2006, that "PoliticalMoneyLine, which tracks lobbying spending, reported this week that companies and other special interests spent $1.16 billion to lobby Congress and federal agencies during the first part of last year." It was a new six-month record for lobbying spending. [need to update this probably, but I can't get into politicalmoneyline database.]

Of course not everybody's earmark is everbody's waste. Use our collection of reference sites to track lobbying dollars, follow budget appropriations and priorities and make up your own mind.

Sources: "Clients' Rewards Keep K Street Lobbyists Thriving," Jeffrey H. Birnbaum, THE WASHINGTON POST, February 14, 2006; "Lawmakers Seeking Curbs on Special Spending Requests", THE NEW YORK TIMES CARL HULSE, February 8, 2006; "Hobbling the Lobbyists," THE ECONOMIST, January 26, 2006; Power Struggle Over Pork," THE HILL, Jonathan Allen, February 14, 2006; ""Match Point for Doctor No," THE ECONOMIST, January 19, 2006; MIT Office of Sponsored Programs; University of Michigan Research.

Discussion:

  • Should earmarking be allowed? What might be some of the benefits?

  • What process or guidelines should be in place to prevent the potential abuse of earmarking? How would you reform the earmarking process?

  • Go to: http://www.examiner.com/earmarks/ and look at the Labor, Health and Human Services appropriations earmarks for your state. Do you see some recipients you know? Maybe you see organizations or causes you support. Would you be willing to support a ban on earmarks even if it means that your community's federal funds might decrease?


BEGIN VIDEO CLIP — BILL MOYERS TALKS WITH NORMAN ORNSTEIN AND THOMAS FRANK

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: You've got people on both sides actually, who are stalwarts in trying to stop this process from-- from moving forward. They've been in the minority. A lot of members don't want to get discomfort. They've lived kind of nicely the-- the way that things have been going. You know, I-- I would add, having been in Washington for 37 years, now I see a level of spending and conspicuous consumption that I just didn't see before. The fact is when you've got a three trillion dollar economy, and now you take 30, 40, $50 billion out of that, you know, chump change in a way-- and say to every member of Congress, you've got a few hundred million you can play with. You are the king over a few hundred million dollars.

BILL MOYERS: These are the earmarks?

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: The earmarks.

BILL MOYERS: Earmark, as I understand it, means that a congressman-- a member of Congress can direct that money be given, sent directly to a project without going through a public agency.

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: And without going through any kind of vetting or cost benefit analysis, in effect. And it's done through appropriations. It's done through authorizations. It's done through academic earmarking, getting money going to a particular university. It's also-- it's surreptitiously steering contracts, like defense contracts. That's what Randy "Duke" Cunningham did in return for $2.4 million in bribes.

END CLIP


BEGIN CLIP

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: There are some reforms that would make a difference. Primarily, in this case, we need an Ethics Committee and an ethics process that has some outside involvement to-- have--

BILL MOYERS: So it's not members in Congress running.

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: --not just members of Congress. The Constitution says they make the ultimate decision. But you've got to have some better vetting process. There are states like Florida and Kentucky that manage to do this reasonably effectively. We've got to change this earmarking process and bring some honesty to it. And we're far from being able to do that. And we've got to have--

BILL MOYERS: In other words, you could publicize who is sponsoring the earmark so that I would know Norman Ornstein has sent an earmark over to a campaign contribution.

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: And so that you can look into the behavior of individual members and staffers-- which may be related to those earmarks. And--

BILL MOYERS: But if reform has to come from the people who have benefited from the system, are we going to get reform?

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: We're going to get reform if and when they believe that the public will have the tar-- cooking and the feathers waiting if they don't do reform. We're not there yet, Bill.

THOMAS FRANK: Can I say two things about this question? First of all, the-- the people who are in charge now have a vested interest in increasing our cynicism. They are the party of cynicism against government.

And when they do these things, that's just an added benefit that they-- that they've managed to get the cynicism numbers up where they have, that's good for the Republican Party, the party that tells you that what? Remember what President Reagan used to say about government, you know? It was a joke, the idea that they were here to help you, all that stuff.

The second point I want to make is go back to the 19th century, the sort of parallel experience to what we're going through now. You had a series of reformers come up in the 19th century. And every single one of them from, you know, Horace Greeley all up to the 1890s failed miserably, you know, were rejected in huge sweep-- I mean, the corruptionists just whipped these guys.

It was a piece of cake. It was easy. The only thing that-- what really changed it is when reform became a broader thing, when it became-- progressivism. And when it became-- you know, look at society as a whole. We're going to change the-- the entire direction that we're moving in. When, I'm talking about here people like Teddy Roosevelt and Franklin Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. That's when this stuff started to abate. Not-- not before that.

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: You know, one problem we have here is what we really need is politicians. Politicians understand the nature of politics and the importance of the institutions. How to do give and take and compromises in an effective fashion. What's happening now is where this flame of cynicism in the public, somebody pops up and says, "I'm not a politician."

And we say, "Okay, great. We'll elect you." And what we get are people who are on an ideological crusade, people who have a contempt for politics and believe that it is all sleaze, everybody does it. So bribery is a way of life.

END CLIP

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