The Super Bowl Earmark

Saturday, March 5, 2005

THE SAGINAW Chippewa Indian Tribe of Michigan is one of the wealthiest in the country. Its Soaring Eagle casino is so profitable that each member of the tribe receives $70,000 annually. So the tribe wouldn't seem the worthiest candidate to get $3 million from the federal government to help build a new school--especially because other tribal schools across the country are so dilapidated that the Interior Department hasn't been able to keep up with necessary repairs. But to imagine that those in the greatest need get the most help is to fail to appreciate the sordid operations of the congressional appropriations process, which tends to favor those with the best-connected, most aggressive lobbyists.

That, indeed, is what happened in the case of the Saginaw Chippewas, as related by The Post's Susan Schmidt. Ms. Schmidt described how Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.), who oversees funding for Indian affairs, pressured Interior to reverse its ruling that the tribe was not entitled to get the federal funds. (It wasn't eligible because it didn't qualify for a separate program designed for impoverished Indian schools.) When that didn't work, Mr. Burns simply earmarked the money for the Saginaw Chippewas in the 2004 spending bill.

Why so much concern for this tribe? As Mr. Burns's spokesman, J.P. Donovan, tells it, it was all part of the senator's desire to "help these tribes get a leg up and help the children get a good education"; he acted at the behest of members of the Michigan congressional delegation. Mr. Burns's spokesman says the fact that the tribe's lobbyist, Jack Abramoff, was a major source of campaign contributions to Mr. Burns had no bearing on his support: Mr. Abramoff, his associates, and tribal clients accounted for 42 percent of contributions to Mr. Burns's "soft money" political action committee between 2000 and 2002, and more than $137,000 overall since 2000. One Burns aide spun so quickly through the revolving door that, in the space of three years, he worked for the senator, the lobbyist and the senator again.

Nor, the senator's spokesman adds, did the Super Bowl weekend enjoyed by two aides to Mr. Burns, one his chief of staff (who later departed to work for Mr. Abramoff), the other the staffer who pressed Interior officials to let the tribe get the funds, have any effect. The trip, which several staffers for House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) also made, featured travel on a private jet and an outing to a gambling ship partly owned by Mr. Abramoff. Will M. Brooke, the former Burns chief of staff, said he understood the trip was allowed under Senate ethics rules, which make an exception for gifts--including travel--from government entities, including tribal governments.

In fact, the trip was paid for by Suncruz, the Florida casino cruise line partly owned by Mr. Abramoff, which would have made it impermissible. But that's not really the point. The point is the revolting mind-set, all too prevalent on the Hill these days, that says it's fine to take lavish gifts from lobbyists seeking favors simply because the loot can be crammed through a loophole in the ethics rules. "Senators and Senate staff should be wary of accepting any gift where it appears that the gift is motivated by a desire to reward, influence, or elicit favorable official action," the Senate Ethics Manual advises. Too bad that it's the earmark for the Saginaw Chippewas, not that maxim, that better reflects business as usual in the halls of Congress these days.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company