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Eric Freedman

Eric Freedman

A Fly on the Wall

October 27, 2017

“How long do you think a governing body can go on when it’s made itself a laughing stock, the length and breadth of the country, the way this one has?”

– Member of the U.S. House Appropriations Committee

It’s no understatement to say that Congress is in disarray.

There’s a president who endorses a bipartisan congressional health care compromise proposal one minute and trashes it the next minute. And woos lawmakers one minute and castigates them the next minute. And attacks his predecessor for using executive orders to bypass Congress and issues his own executive orders to bypass Congress the next minute.

Incumbents in the majority GOP caucus are under withering fire from former Trump political advisor Steve Bannon’s far-right legions. Democrats are scrambling for a strategy to regain the majority in at least one chamber.  Major legislation slithers onto the floor with nary a hearing. There’s a Senate logjam on confirmation of judicial and sub-Cabinet nominees nine months into the new administration.

And as always, some members have serious personal problems distracting them from the congressional maelstrom.

For example, U.S. Rep. Chris Collins, R-New York, is under investigation by the House Ethics Committee after the nonpartisan Office of Congressional Ethics reported, “There is a substantial reason to believe that Representative Collins shared material nonpublic information in the purchase of Innate stock, in violation of House rules, standards of conduct and federal law.” He formerly sat on the drug company’s board of directors.

The Justice Department is conducting a criminal investigation of allegations that U.S. Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-California, spent tens of thousands of dollars in campaign money for personal purposes, including dance contests for his children and family travel to Italy and Hawaii.

Meanwhile, U.S. Rep. Tom Marino, R-Pennsylvania, withdrew as the presidential nominee to head the Office of National Drug Control Policy–the national drug czar–after disclosure of what the New York Times described as “his efforts to pass an industry-supported law aimed at undercutting enforcement efforts at the same time opioid abuse has mushroomed into a national epidemic.”

Then there are the members who’ve already called it quits and won’t run again in 2018, including Michigan’s U.S. Rep. Dave Trott, R-Birmingham, and most prominently, Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker, another Republican. So far, 27 House incumbents announced that they don’t want to return to the House.  Of them, 17 are running for the U.S. Senate or governor.

All that’s public. But what goes on behind closed doors on Capitol Hill?

From a fly-on-the-wall’s vantage point, here are excerpts from conversations among members of the U.S. House Appropriations Committee on a subject close to the hearts of officials who want to be reelected: Pork.  I’ve removed the names, but these excerpts drawn from a transcript of those conversations illuminate the attitude of the wheeling-and-dealing pork-barrelers as they haggle and wrangle over how to divvy up the pie:

Representative #1: “Do you want me to point you to the road to prosperity? Loot the treasury, loot the national resources, hang fortunes on the Wall Street Christmas tree!  Graft, gigantic graft brought us our prosperity in the past and will lift us out of the present depths of parsimony and despair!”

Representative #2: “The country’s screaming its head off for the thing!”

Representative #3: “Not the country. Don’t confuse the country with the people that still have money left to send [petitions]. They represent a very small fraction of the country.”

Representative #1: “As a matter of fact, the natural resources of this country in political apathy and indifference have hardly been touched.”

Representative #4: “You think the sacred and senseless legend poured into the people of this country from childhood will protect you. It won’t. It takes about a hundred years to tire this country of trickery–and we’re 50 years overdue right now.”

Representative #1: “By God, if there’s anything I hate more than store liquor it’s an honest politician! There’s something slimy about a man being honest in your position. You spend your days and nights arranging deals among a pack of thieves, and just because you won’t take anything for yourself, you think your hands are clean.  You won’t reform anything by defeating this one bill. Parties may come and parties may go–administrations come in and go out, but the graft varies only in amount, not kind.”

The “transcript” of the conversations actually is the 1933 Pulitzer Prize-winning drama “Both Your Houses” by Maxwell Anderson. Representative #4 is a newcomer to Congress, a school teacher from Nevada and a “sensible, reliable young man” who realizes that there’s a swamp to drain and that his committee colleagues with lengthy tenure are the swamp creatures. He’s cynically and not-too-subtly named Alan McClean. Complicating the swamp drainage problem for McLean is the prospect–or the lure–of pork barrel funding for a dam completion project in his own Nevada, a project he promised to push during his campaign.

McLean naively tells his elder colleagues, “I’ve discovered that some of the people who backed me for office were the contractors who have handled the work on the whole project.  I’ve looked it up and they don’t really need 40 million to finish it.” He has the poor sense to tell the head of the Appropriations Committee that “I was astonished to come upon several instances of lobbyist influence. There’s private graft in this bill, Mr. Chairman…” And that led a long-timer named Sol — Representative #1 in the “transcript” — to declaim in shock, “My God, that’s a bombshell!”

Whether in Congress or our own Legislature, funding earmarked for particular projects are part of politics, and those projects aren’t inherently good or bad merely because an individual legislator seeks the money for his or her own district. It’s a political reality that lawmakers want to boast to their constituents of bringing home the bacon.

The Associated Press reported last month on how the process worked in the Michigan House where Democratic and Republican Appropriations Committee members parked pet projects into the budget. It quoted Rep. Rep. Kosowski, D-Westland, saying, “I know how the system works. … I’m happy that something is coming home to Westland. And committee chair Laura Cox, R-Livonia, who secured grants for her district, said, “It’s a deliberative process.  We do background. Some people make the cut. Some don’t.”

Meanwhile, a state Senate-passed bill would let the legislative thumb weigh even more heavily on the scale. The proposal by Sen. David Hildenbrand, R-Lowell, would give the House Speaker and Senate Majority Leader a say in recommending public lands projects for Natural Resources Trust Fund funding.  It’s awaiting action in the House.

As our cynical Representative #1 — Sol — tells McClean, “Before I knew where I was I was an outsider. I couldn’t get anything for my district. My constituents complained and I wasn’t going to be reelected. So I began to play ball, just to pacify the folks back home.  And it worked. They’ve been reelecting me ever since–reelecting a fat crook because he gets what they want out of the Treasury and sees that they don’t get gypped out of their share of the plunder.”

Eric Freedman, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, is professor of Journalism and director of Capital News Service and the Knight Center for Environmental Journalism at Michigan State University.

October 26, 2017 · Filed under Freedman

1 response so far ↓

  • 1 Anagnorisis // Oct 27, 2017 at 9:46 am

    Praise DOME. It is certainly no OVERstatement to infer that there is a wide gap between presenting news telling of schizophrenic hypocrisy and representing schizophrenic hypocrisy as telling the news. Yes, “plunder”, love the scripted “fly on the wall” conversational journalistic ploy for its effect. Truly, US politics is relegated to Larry, Moe & Curly slapschtick now as Eric infers cleverly while castigating the bloviate executive in schizophrenic hypocrisy. When this comedy show’s reruns pass into oblivion one wonders what might be left to carry on. Hopefully DOME. (Of note is the prevalence of Rs suffix to names)

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