How Congress succeeds by not failing

Rep. Ray LaHood, R-Ill., who’s giving up his powerful post on the House Appropriations Committee and retiring after 14 years, says that he’s leaving with his head held high. By the abysmally low standards in Congress, his tenure was a smashing success. Apparently, a member of the Appropriations Committee is doing well if he or she doesn’t end up in prison.

“I’m going out on top. I’ve seen colleagues voted out or carried out or prosecuted out. It’s a pretty good time to leave,”  LaHood told the Peoria Journal-Star in a story published Sunday.

One of LaHood’s colleagues on the House Appropriations Committee was Randy “Duke” Cunningham. Others include Jerry Lewis, R-Calif.; Allan Mollohan, D-W.Va.; and Virgil Goode, R-Va., all of whom have come under scrutiny from investigators for their ties to Cunningham’s briber, Mitch Wade, who’s back in the news as his sentencing next month approaches.

Sometimes departing congressmen give us a rare glimpse of truth. Not LaHood. He says that Randy “Duke” Cunningham “poisoned the well on earmarks.” He has it backwards: the well is poisoned, and it’s making Congress sick.

“I’ve never been embarrassed by an earmark; they all came from people in my district who had a good idea,” LaHood said.

The Man from Peoria has to defend earmarks; he’s one of the biggest porkers in the House. Citizens Against Government Waste scored LaHood at the bottom of all House Republicans in 100 votes that would have reined in government spending in 2007. (Two Democrats scored even lower.)  LaHood was also selected by the non-partisan group as “porker of the month” two years earlier

Appropriators protect each other. When Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., dared to try and kill then-Speaker Denny Hastert’s $2.5 million earmark for the Illinois Technology Development Corp. because it was inappropriate for a defense bill, LaHood reminded him — on the House floor — “Do you know who earmarked this money?”

The Journal-Star ran a more insightful story Sunday headlined “LaHood showed 18th District the money.” He sure did:

“The reason I went on the Appropriations Committee, the reason other people go on the Appropriations Committee, is they know that it puts them in a position to know where the money is at, to know the people who are doling the money out and to be in the room when the money is being doled out,” LaHood has said.

This perfectly encapsulates the attitude of the appropriators. They think in terms of getting money, not spending it wisely, and you can forget about saving it. So what if Congress wastes billions of dollars on planes that don’t fly, bridges to nowhere, defense systems the military doesn’t want, monuments to themselves or a hippy museum? Occasionally, an earmark actually helps someone, so that justifies the whole lot.

Through earmarks, Congress is frittering away its most important power of Congress — “the power of the purse.” Nothing comes out of the U.S. Treasury until Congress gives its assent. This is a deliberate check on the president and gives Congress “the most complete and effectual weapon with which any constitution can arm the immediate representatives of the people,” as James Madison wrote in The Federalist Papers. So in Congress, especially the House, the appropriators are greater among equals: They hold the power.

In the 1980s, appropriators started to skim the cream off the federal budget and send it back home to their districts in the form of earmarks. Lobbyists saw it as a way to guarantee money for their clients, and they flocked to the appropriators like bears to honey. After the GOP takeover, earmarks rose from $31 billion in 1994 to more than $65 billion in 2006, according to Congressional Research Service.

The appropriators were getting high on their own supply, and like all addicts, they rationalized their self-destruction. Earmarks are chump change in the $3 trillion federal budget. And everyone else is doing it, right? It’s going to happen anyway, so “I gots to get mine.” It’s was no different on Wall Street, of course. This is what happens when you have hustlers and showmen running things.

LaHood had a reputation for reaching across the aisle, but it was an unmistakably partisan Ray LaHood who tried to minimize embarrassment to the GOP during the Cunningham scandal. LaHood, like Cunningham, also served on the House intelligence committee. (That’s CIA director George Tenet to the right of LaHood in the photo above.) Cunningham’s actions on the intelligence committee were and remain deeply embarrassing. The panel still hasn’t released an unclassified report detailing how Cunningham manipulated the committee to funnel millions of dollars to Mitch Wade and his company, MZM Inc. Committee members like LaHood didn’t want it to get around that they didn’t know what was going on, didn’t care, or both.

But Democrat Jane Harman, ranking member on the intelligence committee, had the temerity to release a five-page executive summary of the Cunningham report. LaHood was incensed. He got a Democratic staffer on the House Intelligence Committee suspended, and suggested it was political payback. “If the ranking member wants to play politics,” LaHood told Fox News, “there are some of us on the other side that can play politics, and I’m not afraid to do it.”

This is a different Ray LaHood than the one David Broder of The Washington Post tells us will be missed in Congress. LaHood’s decision to retire last year sent “shock waves through the whole chamber,” Broder says. LaHood “embodies the characteristics that make the House work as an institution” — he takes care of constituents, carries a heavier share of the legislative workload, and cultivates relationships on the other side of the aisle.

Broder says it’s a shame when the House lets go of a member like LaHood. I say it’s a shame that the standards of our polity as so low that a man like LaHood who succeeds by not failing may actually may be missed.

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