"Money On My Mind" is a monthly column by Jay Mandle. The views expressed here are those of the author, (not necessarily those of Democracy Matters or Common Cause), and are meant to stimulate discussion.
By Jay Mandle
Last March, Randy “Duke” Cunningham, once a powerful member of the House of Representatives, was sentenced to more than eight years in prison for taking $2.4 million in bribes from defense-related business people and lobbyists. In exchange for the money, the Congressman had “earmarks” inserted into defense appropriation bills, awarding military projects and contracts to his campaign contributors. There was nothing subtle about Cunningham’s methods. He had prepared a “bribe menu” that detailed how much money he wanted in order to deliver contracts.1
Earmarks are appropriations inserted into legislation by individual members of Congress. They are not subject to debate. The Department of Defense budget is a favorite vehicle for earmarks if only because of its enormous size. Between 1994 and 2006 the number of earmarks attached to the defense budget increased from 587 to 2,847. Their cost increased from $4.2 billion to $9.4 billion (that is not a typo: billion, not million).2
No such calculation has been made for the defense appropriation bill that was passed at the end of September, but it is obvious that there has been no let up. The New York Times reporter David D. Kirkpatrick writes that the bill is “packed” with earmarks. He quotes Senator Tom Coburn, a Republican critic of earmarking, as saying “the appetite is undiminished.”3
Observers are of course outraged. Winslow T. Wheeler, a former staff member for four different members of Congress, is the individual who more than any has brought the problem of earmarks to public attention. In discussing defense appropriation earmarks, he cuts right to the heart of the problem. Defense earmarks, he writes, are responsible for “squeezing funds for war essentials such as training, weapons, maintenance and spare parts – things troops in combat need more, not less, of….”4 The former Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, John Shalikashvili makes the same point when he says earmarks have “…gotten completely out of hand. This is the time that we need to put the Army in full readiness, and we cannot even afford to do that.”
In response, the Department of Defense is deferential. A spokesperson is reported to have said “We’re obviously not going to pick a fight with Congress. The process is what it is.”5
This is horrifying stuff. Even the most outspoken critic of the war in Iraq does not want to see soldiers in the field deprived of the training and equipment they need. But it is particularly galling when congressional defenders of the war are themselves big-time participants in earmarking. Cunningham was a vociferous defender of the war. So too is Curt Weldon, a member of the House of Representatives from Pennsylvania and Chair of the Armed Services sub-committee responsible for most Air Force and Army acquisitions. Weldon has earmarked $4 million to what seems to be a phantom firm in his home district run by a “Who’s Who” of aerospace corporations - Boeing, Bell Helicopter, Textron, and the Sikorsky unit of United Technologies. Unsurprisingly, Weldon ranks fourth among all members of Congress receiving defense company campaign donations.6
The damaging role played by private money in politics is clear. Despite the fact that the Pentagon wants to discontinue its production, the C-17 Globemaster III cargo jet manufactured by Boeing was earmarked by Jim Talent (R-MO). Talent, it turns out, has received more money from Boeing in 2006 than any other member of Congress.7 But no one earmarks funds for the young people whose lives are at risk overseas. After all, soldiers do not earn enough to be important campaign contributors.
Despite Cunningham’s conviction and the abuses that his trial revealed, Congress is not about to eliminate earmarking. It is too valuable a fund-raising tool. Earmarks represent something real and tangible that incumbents can sell to prospective contributors.
Nothing short of a clean elections public funding system for Congress is going to solve this problem. Only when members of Congress are freed from the need to solicit private contributions will they be able to consider defense and other appropriations in a disinterested way. Until then, they will continue to earmark funds to ensure their own political security at the expense of the nation’s.
Earmarking the defense budget illustrates how extensive a clean elections coalition could be. A very wide spectrum of political viewpoints would agree that military appropriations should not be dictated by special interests. With earmarks, no one can be confident that the military can effectively do its job. Put in those terms, clean elections forms the basis for a coalition among people who might disagree on a very wide array of other issues – including the role of the military – but who agree that the time has come to get private money out of politics.
1. Randal C. Archibold, “Ex-Congressman Gets 8-Year Term in Bribery Case,” The New York Times, March 4, 2006, http://select.nytimes.com
2. Congressional Research Service, Memorandum, “Earmarks in FY2006 Appropriations Act,” March 6, 2006, p. 11.
3. David D. Kirkpatrick, “Earmarks Find Way Into Spending Bill,” The New York Times, September 30, 2006, http://nytimes.com.
4. Winslow T. Wheeler, “Don’t Mind If I Do,” Washington Post Sunday Outlook, August 22, 2004, p. B1... See also Winslow T. Wheeler, The Wastrels of Defense: How Congress Sabotages U.S. Security (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2004).
5. Michael Bloomberg, “Alcoa, Timken Gain as Funds Go to ‘Boondoggle’ Plans, Bloomberg News, September 12, 2006,
7. Winslow T. Wheeler, “America’s Post 9/11 Military: Can Congress Reform Our Shrinking, Aging, Less Ready, More Expensive Forces?” Security Policy Working Group: A Project of the Proteus Fund. Center for Responsive Politics, “Boeing Company, Top Recipients Among Federal Candidates, 2006 Cycle,” http://www.opensecrets.org.