The feeding frenzy has started.
I was on an airplane the other day heading to the funeral of a very dear friend. Next to me was seated a man in a business suit who, I noticed, was poring over a statute printed off the Internet related to lobbying. He was, I soon realized, a local government official heading off to Washington to lobby for a piece of the pie—money from the economic stimulus bill, now known as the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.
As he told me, “Everybody’s going to Washington.”
And with good reason. Congress has served up a buffet of $800 billion in what I can only call one of the biggest grab-bag boondoggles in American history. And the people who stand to benefit most, as Robert Frank pointed out on his blog at the Wall Street Journal, are lobbyists. “When there are big contracts,” he wrote, “there are lobbyists. K-Street is back in business!”
I can only think back to my own days as an attorney, when my firm represented companies doing business with the government. If I were still in the business, as they say, I’d be making millions.
For years on BreakPoint, I have railed against earmarking—that is, when congressmen slip expenditures into the budgeting process without debate. Now, as the Washington Times has pointed out, President Obama claimed that “the stimulus plan contains no earmarks because Congress technically did not use the earmark process for lawmakers to request and drop in specific spending items.”
Well, forget about the technicalities, there is enough pork in this stimulus package to feed the world for years. Will someone please tell me how millions of dollars to protect the habitat of a marsh mouse in San Francisco, or millions for the National Endowment for the Arts, or billions for the ACORN neighborhood organizing groups is going to stimulate the economy?
But this is what happens when legislators are in the hip pockets of lobbyists and special interests.
I applauded President Obama for his new ethics rules prohibiting lobbyists from serving in his administration. And he was right to promise transparency in government.
Sadly, however, the President has granted numerous waivers so that certain lobbyists could join his administration. And as for transparency, Mr. Obama pledged to “end the practice of writing legislation behind close doors,” and to “expose special interest tax breaks to public scrutiny,” and to allow the public five days to review non-emergency legislation before he signs it.
What happened with the stimulus bill? The bill was written almost entirely behind closed doors. The Washington Post reported that special tax breaks were given at the last minute to, for example, Detroit automakers and to buyers of RVs and motorcycles. And of course, not only did the public not have five days to review the bill, neither did legislators!
I have said for years on BreakPoint that the biblical role of government is to preserve order and do justice. It is not to dole out favors or to make lobbyists rich. Yet that is what is happening today to an unprecedented degree, even by Washington standards.
And both parties are responsible. When the Republicans controlled the Congress, they failed to fix it, and now the Democrats are perpetuating it as well.
So I say demand that our leaders clean up their act. Public outrage may be the only thing left between us and the loss of our form of government.