Tag: corruption

Earmarks Are the Gateway Drug to Big Government Addiction

I haven’t commented much on earmarks, but an oped in today’s Washington Post was has goaded me into action. A former Reagan Administration appointee (the Gipper must be spinning in his grave), who now makes a living by selling our money to the highest bidder, made several ridiculous assertions, including:

…earmarks are largely irrelevant to balancing the budget. The $16.5 billion Congress spent on earmarks in fiscal year 2009 sounds like a lot, but leaves a minuscule footprint - about 1 percent of 2009’s $1.4 trillion deficit. Those seriously concerned about deficits should look elsewhere for meaningful spending reductions. …On Capitol Hill, party leaders must appeal to lawmakers’ interests as well as their principles to get the votes they need. The leaders must be able to offer incentives - such as earmarks - to win votes on difficult issues. Earmarks are not the only possible incentives, nor do they need to be the most compelling ones. But they are a tool for taking care of members who might otherwise stray.

The author is right that earmarks technically are not a big share of the budget. But he conveniently forgets to address the real issue, which is the degree to which earmarks are the proverbial apple in the congressional Garden of Eden. Members who otherwise might want to defend taxpayers are lured into becoming part of the problem. This is how I described the process in arecent PolitiFact article.

Daniel Mitchell, a senior fellow with the libertarian Cato Institute, …adds that the existence of earmarks increases the upward pressure on federal spending indirectly, since lawmakers “know they need to support the relevant powers on the spending committees in order to have their earmarks approved.” Mitchell calls earmarks a “gateway drug” that “seduces members into treating the federal budget as a good thing that can be milked for home-state/district projects.”

Since the author of the Washington Post column is trying, at least in part, to appeal to advocates of smaller government, I’m also puzzled that he says earmarks are good because they help grease the wheels so that more legislation can be passed. Does he really think reminding us about the “Cornhusker Kickback” and “Louisiana Purchase” will make us more sympathetic to his argument? Yes, it’s theoretically possible that congressional leaders will use earmarks to help pass legislation shrinking the burden of government. It’s also possible that I’ll play centerfield next year for the Yankees. But I’m not holding my breath for either of these things to happen.

Last but not least, earmarks are utterly corrupt. The fact that they are legal does not change the fact that they finance a racket featuring big payoffs to special interests, who give big fees to lobbyists (often former staffers and Members), who give big contributions to  politicians. Everyone wins…except taxpayers.

This is one of the many reasons why I did this video a couple of years ago with the simple message that big government means big corruption.

What Gets You Most Upset about the TARP Bailout, the Lying, the Corruption, or the Economic Damage?

As an economist, I should probably be most agitated about the economic consequences of TARP, such as moral hazard and capital malinvestment. But when I read stories about how political insiders (both in government and on Wall Street) manipulate the system for personal advantage, I get even more upset.

Yes, TARP was economically misguided. But the bailout also was fundamentally corrupt, featuring special favors for the well-heeled. I don’t like it when lower-income people use the political system to take money from upper-income people, but it is downright nauseating and disgusting when upper-income people use the coercive power of government to steal money from lower-income people.

Now, to add insult to injury, we’re being fed an unsavory gruel of deception as the political class tries to cover its tracks. Here’s a story from Bloomberg about the Treasury Department’s refusal to obey the law and comply with a FOIA request. A Bloomberg reporter wanted to know about an insider deal to put taxpayers on the line to guarantee a bunch of Citigroup-held securities, but the government thinks that people don’t have a right to know how their money is being funneled to politically-powerful and well-connected insiders.

The late Bloomberg News reporter Mark Pittman asked the U.S. Treasury in January 2009 to identify $301 billion of securities owned by Citigroup Inc. that the government had agreed to guarantee. He made the request on the grounds that taxpayers ought to know how their money was being used. More than 20 months later, after saying at least five times that a response was imminent, Treasury officials responded with 560 pages of printed-out e-mails – none of which Pittman requested. They were so heavily redacted that most of what’s left are everyday messages such as “Did you just try to call me?” and “Monday will be a busy day!” None of the documents answers Pittman’s request for “records sufficient to show the names of the relevant securities” or the dates and terms of the guarantees.

Here’s another reprehensible example. The Treasury Department, for all intents and purposes, prevaricated when it recently claimed that the AIG bailout would cost “only” $5 billion. This has triggered some pushback from Capitol Hill GOPers, as reported by the New York Times, but it is highly unlikely that anyone will suffer any consequences for this deception. To paraphrase Glenn Reynolds, “laws, honesty, and integrity, like taxes, are for the little people.”

The United States Treasury concealed $40 billion in likely taxpayer losses on the bailout of the American International Group earlier this month, when it abandoned its usual method for valuing investments, according to a report by the special inspector general for the Troubled Asset Relief Program. …“The American people have a right for full and complete disclosure about their investment in A.I.G.,” Mr. Barofsky said, “and the U.S. government has an obligation, when they’re describing potential losses, to give complete information.” …“If a private company filed information with the government that was just as misleading and disingenuous as what Treasury has done here, you’d better believe there would be calls for an investigation from the S.E.C. and others,” said Representative Darrell Issa, the senior Republican on the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. He called the Treasury’s October report on A.I.G. “blatant manipulation.” Senator Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, the senior Republican on the Finance Committee, said he thought “administration officials are trying so hard to put a positive spin on program losses that they played fast and loose with the numbers.” He said it reminded him of “misleading” claims that General Motors had paid back its rescue loans with interest ahead of schedule.

P.S. Allow me to preempt some emails from people who will argue that TARP was a necessary evil. Even for those who think the financial system had to be recapitalized, there was no need to bail out specific companies. The government could have taken the approach used during the S&L bailout about 20 years ago, which was to shut down the insolvent institutions. Depositors were bailed out, often by using taxpayer money to bribe a solvent institution to take over the failed savings & loan, but management and shareholders were wiped out, thus  preventing at least one form of moral hazard.

Earmarked for Corruption

Florida Times-Union reporter Matt Dixon deserves kudos for his detailed exposé of Congresswoman Corrine Brown’s (D-FL) corruption-tainted earmarking. Since 2008, Brown has sought millions for a non-profit in Jacksonville that employs a lobbying outfit that just happens to have Brown’s daughter Shantrel on its staff.

Brown and her daughter have tried to secure $1.1 million for “streetscape improvements and renovations” at a plaza leased by the non-profit. Rep. Brown is currently requesting a direct appropriation of $1 million for it, but interestingly says on her website that “I certify that neither I nor my spouse has any financial interest in this project.” Okay, but what about her daughter?

As the article explains, this isn’t the first time the Browns have collaborated at taxpayer expense:

The Community Rehabilitation Center is not the only client of her daughter’s that Brown has helped.

In 2006, she traveled to the Republic of Georgia shortly before natural gas importer Itera had stopped supplying portions of the country with gas due to $6 million in non-payments. Over an eight-month period that year, Itera paid Shantrel Brown and one other Alcalde and Fay lobbyist more than $80,000 to work on “international debt issues,” lobbying reports indicate.

The Russian company, which has its U.S. headquarters in Jacksonville, has filed 31 separate federal lobbying reports since 2005. It used Shantrel Brown only during the eight months in 2006.

In a separate 1999 incident involving her daughter, Brown was investigated by an ethics subcommittee after a $50,000 Lexus purchased by African banker Karim Pouye wound up registered in Shantrel’s name. Corrine Brown had lobbied to keep Pouye’s boss, West African millionaire Foutanga Dit Babani Sissoko, out of federal prison after he was accused of stealing $240 million from a bank in the United Arab Emirates. The money wound up in Miami bank accounts controlled by Sissoko. The subcommittee took no action, but in its written report was critical of the Lexus.

According to the article, the non-profit had $4.6 million in total revenue in 2009. Of that amount, $2.1 million came from Medicaid and another $1.6 million came from “government contributions.” Where the money is going should raise eyebrows:

In [2008 and 2009], employee salaries made up nearly 40 percent of the center’s overall expenses. In 2008, $1.6 million of the center’s $4.5 million in total expenses was tied to salaries. The following year, the salary number jumped to $1.8 million of the center’s total $4.5 million in expenses. It is unclear how many employees the Community Rehabilitation Center employed during those years.

As a Cato essay on special-interest spending explains, earmark apologists are wrong when they argue that earmarks aren’t a big deal since they constitute a tiny portion of overall federal spending:

The problem is that earmarking has contributed to a general erosion of fiscal responsibility in Washington. Earmarks have exacerbated the parochial mindset of most members of Congress, who spend their time appeasing state and local interest groups rather than tackling issues of broad national concern. Many politicians complain about the soaring federal deficit, yet their own staff members spend most of their time trying to secure earmarks in spending bills.

Corrine Brown takes this parochial mindset to a new level by using her power to enrich her own family at taxpayer expense.

Republicans and Democrats Should Be Especially Concerned about the Threat of Government When Their Party Is in Charge

Gallup just released a poll showing that 46 percent of Americans view the federal government as an immediate threat to the rights and freedoms of ordinary Americans. My first reaction was to wonder why the number was so low. After all, we have a political elite that wants to do everything from control our health care to monitor our financial transactions.

But a secondary set of numbers is even more remarkable. As seen in this chart, both Republicans and Democrats tend to view the federal government as a threat mostly when the White House is controlled by the other party.

This complacency is very unfortunate. Republicans presumably want to limit government control over the economy, yet it was the Bush Administration that put in place policies such as Sarbanes-Oxley, the banana-republic TARP bailout, the corrupt farm bills, and the pork-filled transportation bills. Democrats, meanwhile, presumably want to protect our civil liberties, yet the Obama Administration has left in place virtually all of the Bush policies that the left was upset about just two years ago. There has been no effort to undo the more troublesome provisions of the PATRIOT Act. And shouldn’t honest liberals be upset that the Obama Administration is going to such lengths to defend the military’s don’t-ask-don’t-tell policy?

The lesson to be learned is that there is an unfortunate tendency for politicians to misbehave when they get control of the machinery of government. Lord Acton warned that “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” It’s almost as if Republicans and Democrats do their best every day to confirm this statement.

The Alaska Version of Big Government Means Big Corruption

Tim Carney of the Washington Examiner is an expert on graft and sleaze inside the Beltway, and his column this morning is a perfect example. He shows how corrupt insiders in Alaska use something known as the “Rent-an-Eskimo” scam to pull in hundreds of millions of tax dollars from no-bid federal contracts. These insiders, meanwhile, steers big bucks to Washington lobbyists (almost all of whom worked for politicians like Lisa Murkowski), who then provide campaign cash to the corrupt officials who pass the laws that enable the circle of graft to continue. Here are some key passages from Tim’s column.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s write-in candidacy is being funded by $100,000 contributions from a handful of Alaska corporations that have been handsomely subsidized by the federal government. These six-figure donors have pulled in billions of taxpayer dollars thanks to special legislative favors from Murkowski and her mentors – the late Sen. Ted Stevens (R), and Lisa’s father, former senator and governor, Frank Murkowski (R). …In late September AST took in $800,000 from nine Alaska Native Corporations – unique, privileged, and politically connected for-profit entities created in the 1970s by legislation written by Stevens.  While the companies are technically owned by the natives, the taxpayer-funded spoils from these contracts accrue to the well-connected nonnative lobbyists, subcontractors, and executives in the “Alaska mafia” made up of aides, friends and donors of Stevens, the Murkowskis, and Rep. Don Young (R). Meanwhile the 130,000 Alaska Natives, who are shareholders in the ANCs, have received $720 million over the last nine years, which comes to $615 per native annually. In effect, the natives are unwitting frontmen for this racket. Critics on Capitol Hill say this is worse than Jack Abramoff’s exploitation of Indian tribes, and, in a dark joke, dub the ANCs with the politically incorrect name “rent-an-Eskimo. …These multimillion-dollar (in some cases billion-dollar) corporations are exempt from competition requirements that cover most federal contracts because they are automatically treated as small businesses from socially and economically disadvantaged populations – although their success in pulling in federal contracts would suggest otherwise. …These overpriced no-bid contracts aren’t welfare for poor natives as much as they are patronage for politically connected lobbyists and executives, most of whom are not natives. …The ANCs highlight the truly corrupt aspect of pork-barrel spending, especially in Alaska. “Bringing home the bacon” is not simply about transferring wealth north from the Lower 48 – it’s often about using taxpayer money to line the pockets of the politically connected, who return the favor in the form of campaign contributions. Much of the pork doesn’t make it all the way to Alaska – it stays right here on K Street.

This is just one example of how big government creates a breeding ground for corruption. The circle of graft is Washington’s version of recycling. Money gets taken from taxpayers and then winds up getting passed back and forth among special interests, lobbyists, and politicians. This video provides more of the sordid details.

Power Corrupts (Now With Science!)

The humor site Cracked rounds up some serious social science on the psychological effects of power and authority. The results are sobering—if not entirely surprising. When people in experimental environments were made to feel as though they were powerful—either by recalling actual instances for their lives or by being placed in simulated positions of power for a few hours—researchers found that they became less compassionate, less prone to take the perspective of others, more able to lie without feeling guilty about it, and more prone to consider themselves exempt from the rules and standards they righteously insist apply to others. What’s striking is how quickly and easily the experimenters elicited dramatic behavioral differences given that (unlike people who actively seek power) their “powerful” and control groups were randomly chosen.

It’s useful to keep this in mind because, while the overwhelming lesson of the last half century of social psychology is that situational influences can easily swamp the effect of individual differences in character, our political rhetoric takes scant account of this. Political campaigns focus heavily on questions of “character”—which especially in the case of “outsider” campaigns should be of limited predictive value. Republican candidates and officials try to portray Democrats as arrogant and out of touch, while Democrats cast Republicans as callous and greedy. In each case, the message is that these are bad people, and their character flaws are somehow related to their specific ideologies. The remedy is, invariably, to replace them in positions of power with better people from the other team. These social science results suggest that this is unlikely to work: The problem is power itself.

‘Democrats Guess Wrong on Health Care’

That’s the headline of an article posted this week in Politico:

Rarely have so many political strategists been so wrong about something so big.

But when it comes to the health care bill, everyone from former President Bill Clinton on down whiffed on some of the more significant predictions.

Democrats would run aggressively on the legislation? Nope. Voters would forget about the sausage-making aspects of the legislative process? Doesn’t seem that way, as the process contributed to the sense that the bill was deeply flawed.

And Clinton’s own promise to jittery Democrats that their poll numbers would skyrocket after the bill finally passed also didn’t pan out, as the party is fighting for its life in the midterms.

What can explain the miscalculation?  Maybe religious fervor?