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Week of 8.25.06

Lawmakers or Lawbreakers?

In the run-up to this fall's midterm elections, over a dozen Congressmen have been swept up in allegations stemming from recent Washington corruption scandals, like the Abramoff affair. This week NOW asks: will voters care that so many politicians running for re-election find themselves in the midst of ethical accusations and investigations?

One Congressman mired in controversy is Californian Republican Jerry Lewis, who is under federal investigation for his close, perhaps too close, relationship with top lobbyist Bill Lowery. Lewis appears confident of a reelection nonetheless. Perhaps he should be. Chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, which oversees nearly a trillion dollars in federal spending, Lewis has amassed some $1.5 million for his re-election campaign. He also won the last election with more than 60 percent of the vote.

Earmarks

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Some suggest that Lewis' popularity has much to do with the money he sends back to his constituents in the form of earmarks.

Over the years Lewis has inserted hundreds of earmarks, many for projects back home. Lewis has included earmarks - special provisions inserted into legislation which directs money to a particular person or group, often at the request of lobbyists - totaling hundreds of millions of dollars. Earmarks are not illegal, but granting one in exchange for a campaign donation is.

Tom Casey, a businessman, tells NOW how his conversations with Lewis led him and his business partners to receive earmarks worth $34 million. He says he couldn't believe it when he read that Lewis and Lowery had downplayed their relationship. Dozens of cities and government agencies have also turned to Lowery to get earmarks in Lewis's home district.

Number of earmarks issued in 2005: 13,000

The value of 2005 earmarks: $67 Billion

Number of lobbyists in Washington: 35,000
"Congressman Lewis had a term, 'the Lewis family,' and that people who were friends of his were all looking out for each other," says Casey, who met with Lewis to push for an earmark to jumpstart his company.

As the number of lobbyists has skyrocketed in recent years, which some blame for the widespread allegations of ethical misconduct, in some parts of the country there are early signs of a voter backlash.

Interview: Rep. Jim Cooper
» Video available above

Also, Congressman Jim Cooper tells David Brancaccio the government's been misrepresenting the federal deficit. He says the actual numbers are much worse than the official figures, and published a government financial report to make his case.