San Diego Union Tribune

December 3, 2005
 
Bribery admission spotlights favoritism
'Earmarking' has grown in Congress

By Toby Eckert
COPLEY NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON – Former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham's admission that he accepted bribes from defense contractors has renewed scrutiny of the growing power that lawmakers have to steer business to favored companies and causes.

Though Republicans took control of Congress in 1995 vowing to rein in such "earmarking," the practice has grown significantly during the past decade.

"It's like night and day, the difference between then and now," said Rep. Dan Lungren, a Sacramento-area Republican and former state attorney general who returned to Congress this year after more than a decade away.

"I'd walk down the hall and there would be streams of people in front of every office, representing every community and every public entity and every other special interest in that district – and they were all coming in for earmarks," he said. "We sure didn't have that when I was here before."

Earmarks are typically small provisions that members of Congress insert into a bill to fund programs that often benefit their districts or supporters.

Critics of the process now point to the Cunningham case as an inevitable outgrowth of that change.

"When you have a dramatic expansion of the ability of individual members to direct federal funds or to designate contracts, you are creating the most fertile environment for corruption imaginable," said Norman Ornstein, an expert on Congress at the American Enterprise Institute.

"If these guys named in the charge could figure out that they could go from trace elements of a company to hundreds of millions of dollars in a short period of time by making a $2.4 million investment in Randy Cunningham, you've got to believe there are others out there who have figured the same thing out," he said.

Though prosecutors have not detailed how Cunningham, a Rancho Santa Fe Republican, aided the firms, lawmakers are able to influence spending in many ways.

Committee and subcommittee chairs, eager to expand their turf, often urge rank-and-file members to request earmarks for local projects. They also pressure federal agencies to buy certain goods and services.

The problem is compounded when secrecy is involved, experts say. Congress approves billions of dollars in secret intelligence and defense spending each year. The companies that Cunningham has admitted aiding – Washington-based MZM Inc. and Poway-based ADCS Inc. – in return for cash and gifts did defense and intelligence work.

"As a member of the House Intelligence Committee, he would have been privy to the most sensitive information about intelligence contracting and he would have been in a position to improperly assist his benefactors," said Steven Aftergood, who heads the Project on Government Secrecy for the Federation of American Scientists.

"He would be in a position to tip off bidders for impending contracts. He might also be able to tailor or to influence the development of a program in such a way as to make it conform to what a particular vendor has to offer."

The process could have worked the same with Cunningham's other key assignment on the defense appropriations subcommittee. Both panels have launched reviews of Cunningham's committee work.

"Ninety-nine percent of what goes on is setting things up," said Dan Guttman, an expert on government contracting who teaches at Johns Hopkins University. "You wire things not by telling the person making the selection, 'Pick this company,' but by telling the person, 'These are the criteria.' "

A House Appropriations Committee staff member agreed.

"Everyone knows who got the money and everyone knows who it's for," said the staffer, who asked not to be named for fear of angering his bosses.

Budget experts note that, if not for the bribery, many of the favors Cunningham did for the two companies could have been considered part of business as usual on Capitol Hill. Cunningham publicly acknowledged helping MZM and ADCS land government work before he was charged with any crimes.

Lawmakers are eager to take credit for helping hometown businesses grow or securing money for projects. Most consider it a part of what they were sent here to do – represent their districts and states.

Rep. Virgil Goode, R-Va., a member of the House Appropriations Committee who was instrumental in getting funding in 2003 for a defense program in his district run by MZM, said at the time that it would "add a new dimension to the economy" there. Goode has not been accused of wrongdoing.

An analysis by the Democratic staff of the House Appropriations Committee contends that earmarking of defense spending has more than tripled since fiscal year 1995. (Overall, defense spending has increased dramatically since the 2001 terrorist attacks and the beginning of the Iraq war.)

A Republican spokesman for the House Appropriations Committee did not return a call for comment.

Ornstein and other critics argue that the practice of earmarking has become little more than a way to boost lawmakers' re-election prospects, reward contributors and, for some, secure lucrative employment later with the businesses or lobbying firms they help.

It also allows party leaders to maintain discipline and pass controversial bills that are loaded with money for local projects.

"It has exploded since Republicans took control," said Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz. "It's shameless. . . . It's really out of control."

"Members are getting hooked on earmarks quickly. They are led to believe that that is the way you get re-elected. The leadership pretends that they're going to get earmarks under control. But they love them because once they get the members hooked, they can lead them around by the nose," Flake said.

Copley News Service reporters George E. Condon Jr. and Jerry Kammer contributed to this story.

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