How Corrupt is Congress?

Today’s Washington Examiner editorial argues that the convictions of Bob Ney and Randy Cunningham and the criminal indictment of William Jefferson may well be just the tip of an iceberg of corruption in Congress.

While federal prosecutors don’t claim Jefferson used earmarks in his solicitations, let it be noted that the same disdain for the public trust epitomized in the crimes of which the Louisiana Democrat is accused is cultivated by the earmarking process.

Because the total annual value of earmarks in recent years has equaled but a small portion of the overall federal budget, some too-clever critics — most recently Ramesh Ponnuru, writing in National Review — have incautiously dismissed calls for reform as mere distractions from more important issues. But House Appropriations Committee Chairman Rep. David Obey’s recent disclosure that his panel has received more than 36,000 earmark requests in just five months — more than double the total for all of 2005 — makes clear that many in Congress are hopelessly in the grip of what Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., calls “federal spending addiction.”

Either genuine ethics reform — not the business-as-usual smoke and mirrors thus far offered — is enacted ASAP, or the conclusion will be inescapable that Congress cannot change because abuse of office for personal gain has become the norm on Capitol Hill.

Perhaps naively, I still believe genuine corruption among Congressmen and other major officials in American politics is an aberration rather than routine. The people who aspire to and land in those high offices are mostly already quite successful and motivated by some combination of a genuine desire to serve, an interest in public policy, fame, and power. Money is likely low on the list; certainly, most could make more money elsewhere.

Still, the earmarking system is a classic case of “the real crime is what’s legal.” Transparency should be the hallmark of the appropriations process and secret deals are anathema to that. The process brings suspicion on what I believe to be the lion’s share of Congressmen who at honorably. It’s high time for serious reform.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.