Is the King of Pork Dead?

When a member of Congress is indicted, the usual practice of the pols in Washington is to tread lightly, declare the accused innocent until convicted, and studiously ignore what is really going on.

Such is the case with the newly indicted Senator Ted Stevens (R-AK). Everyone is playing their appointed role.

His smirk thoroughly suppressed, the Senate’s Democratic Whip, Richard Durbin of Illinois, declared the mood among his Democratic colleagues as “somber” and “we should just let the courts do their work.” Indeed, doing so will almost certainly inch the Senate’s Democratic caucus toward its goal of 60 members and, thus, the ability to steamroll any bills it wants over the shriveled Republican minority.

Imitating the speeder who tells the police officer he didn’t see the sign limiting his Corvette to 25 mph in a school zone, Senator Stevens told the press “I have never knowingly submitted a false disclosure form required by law as a U.S. senator.”

The newspapers are explaining the technicalities of Stevens’ indictment, pointing out that corrupt acts are not alleged, just a failure to report gifts. Indeed, had Stevens had the gall to report the rebuilt house and car he received, he probably would not be in trouble.

In the Senate, Stevens has been best known for two things: periodic emotional tantrums when other senators failed to capitulate to his preferences – usually more federal programs in Alaska. His display when the Senate rejected opening the Artic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska to oil drilling shows an individual who seems to believe that the his personal emotions are a proper guide for national policy.

Senators endure his asinine behavior because of the other thing Stevens does: parcel out their pork. As the top Republican on the Senate Appropriations Committee in the past, and until now at its Defense Subcommittee, Stevens ensures not a single earmark makes it into spending bills without his say so.

Indeed, one is tempted to call Stevens the King of Pork in the Senate and to declare the king dead. That, however, would be to fundamentally misunderstand the system.

First, Stevens is hardly alone in controlling the goodies. Every single morsel in bills that comes out “his” defense appropriations subcommittee must also be approved by the top Democrat, Daniel Inouye, HI. Whether Stevens or Inouye happens to be chairman and the other merely sits atop the minority on the subcommittee means virtually nothing; the pork process is one of the very few things in Congress these days that knows no partisan divide.

Second, having worked in and closely observed the pork process on Capitol Hill for over 35 years, I can assert that no one in the Senate controls it. Earmarks are regarded as essential for political survival. Failure to “bring home the bacon” will attract vociferous attacks – from either party, sometimes both – that the non-porker is “ineffective” or “doesn’t care.” Being lifeblood, earmarks are pursued with a lust that few appreciate. They are never objectively evaluated; staffs of members and committees devote their entire existence to their advocacy, and senators legislate them far more frequently than they do policy. (Just count the amendments on the next defense bill in the Senate.) Any senator atop any committee that does not enable pork will not be chairman, or ranking minority member, for long.

And, there are no exceptions. John McCain (R-AZ) widely advertises himself as a “pork-buster,” and yet, according to the watchdog organization Taxpayers for Common Sense, the Senate Armed Services Committee where he sits as top Republican this year reported a Defense Authorization bill with over $2 billion in pork – against which there is not a peep of complaint at McCain’s Senate or presidential websites or in the Committee’s report. (To be fair, Barak Obama is also not shy as a porker, but at least he doesn’t pretend to be against it in any meaningful way.)

The most important thing the pork system does is to generate revenue. That would not be federal revenue; it would be political revenue. The system is simplicity itself: the senator legislates the earmark; the beneficiary generates the revenue – for the politician.

There are certain rules that regulate the money stream. First and foremost: the gift must be to the politician’s campaign, not to his or her person. Second, neither donor nor recipient can articulate in any way any link whatsoever between the legislative act and the donation. In this wonderfully simple system, the petitioner makes known his wants, and then the legislator legislates. Before, during, or after the legislative deed and without either party visibly offering or soliciting a gift, the campaign donation mysteriously appears. If it doesn’t, the next time around, the legislator may be “too busy” to help the petitioner. If the legislator doesn’t produce, the expression of appreciation just might “fall between the cracks.”

The published rules are carefully written to make this fundamentally corrupt system perfectly legal. There is hardly a single sitting member of Congress who has not repeatedly benefited from it.

Stevens legal mistake was not that he engaged in the corruption of legislating in return for favors; there is no Senate rule or law that bars petitioners from paying off legislators as long as everyone plays the game right. Stevens’ mistake was that he became personally, rather than politically, greedy and failed to comply with a reporting technicality.

Stevens has not been the King of Pork in the Senate; he has been just a cog, albeit a big and oily one, in an ongoing corrupted enterprise. In the US Senate it is Pork that is King, and no one is about to change that.

WINSLOW T. WHEELER spent 31 years working on Capitol Hill with senators from both political parties and the Government Accountability Office, specializing in national security affairs. Currently, he directs the Straus Military Reform Project of the Center for Defense Information in Washington and is author of The Wastrels of Defense.




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Winslow T. Wheeler is the Director of the Straus Military Reform Project at the Project on Government Oversight.  He spent 31 years working for the Government Accountability Office and both Republican and Democratic Senators on national security issues.

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