Is Washington For Sale?
SO DAMN MUCH MONEY
The Triumph of Lobbying and the
Corrosion of American Government
By Robert G. Kaiser
Knopf. 398 pp. $27.95
"Earmarks" and "pork" have become rallying cries against the failures of our government. The Office of Management and Budget, defining an earmark as spending that members of Congress insert in bills in ways that avoid "merit-based" review, says that in 2008 there were over 11,000 earmarks costing more than $16.5 billion, a huge increase over the last few decades. And this count neglects earmarks inserted by the executive branch.
Robert G. Kaiser, an experienced reporter and former managing editor of The Washington Post, has written a fascinating book that explains why earmarks have become more common since the 1970s. His account draws upon his detailed history of Gerald S. J. Cassidy and the lobbying firm of Cassidy and Associates.
Cassidy, a Democrat, began 30 years ago to search for laws that might be exploited to provide benefits to potential clients. He and his associates read the Federal Register and the Congressional Record looking for government programs to which new, highly specific appropriations could be added to help somebody willing to pay Cassidy's bill. And his bill was not cheap: It began at $10,000 a month and went up from there.
The firm slowly found clients, but they were not greedy industrialists or the Indian tribes manipulated by Jack Abramoff. At first, they were universities. In 1976 Jean Mayer, president of Tufts, wanted to build a nutrition center and a veterinary school on his campus. Cassidy learned that there was a law authorizing a national nutrition center. Cassidy and his business partner at the time, Ken Schlossberg, spoke to House Speaker Tip O'Neill, a friend of Mayer. Soon Congress appropriated $27 million, not for a national center, but for one at Tufts.
Next the lobbyists put together a package for a Tufts veterinary school. To do that they also had to support a new veterinary school in the state of Washington and give some money to the University of Pennsylvania's veterinary school, which did not especially like having a competitor at Tufts.
More universities approached Cassidy: Georgetown, Boston University, Columbia, the University of California, Catholic University and on and on. Then business firms realized how skillful Cassidy was at getting Congress to direct funds to specific projects, and they became his clients, too.
Most people think that earmarks are bad, but why should anyone object to earmarks that help some university? Since my son was one of the first graduates of the Tufts veterinary school, I think the earmark that created it was a good idea. Members of Congress have done little to prevent earmarks partly because they want to bring home the bacon to their constituents and partly because it is so hard to distinguish between good and bad earmarks.