MEDIA
11/24/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Unintended Consequences Of The "Defund ACORN" Act

This past Tuesday, HuffPost's Ryan Grim posted a story that rivetingly demonstrated the comedy of the Law of Unintended Consequences. In its zeal to quickly and unthinkingly get on the side of hammering ACORN for its recent transgressions, Congress passed the Defund ACORN Act, a measure written so broadly that it could apply to just about anyone! In other words, Congress made a decision to apply robust oversight to all manner of government contractors by mistake.

In a postscript to his blog post on Tuesday, Glenn Greenwald wrote: "Along those lines, if we had a real media, what [Grim's] article reports about the bill to de-fund ACORN would be huge news." He's absolutely right! This is actually an extraordinary story, that ably illuminates the dysfunction at the root of our government and the scintillating stupidity of a culture more interested in preserving seats than actually serving constituents.

First, let's go back and look at what happened:

The congressional legislation intended to defund ACORN, passed with broad bipartisan support, is written so broadly that it applies to "any organization" that has been charged with breaking federal or state election laws, lobbying disclosure laws, campaign finance laws or filing fraudulent paperwork with any federal or state agency. It also applies to any of the employees, contractors or other folks affiliated with a group charged with any of those things.

In other words, the bill could plausibly defund the entire military-industrial complex. Whoops.

To his credit, Representative Alan Grayson, a rookie Democrat from Florida, out-thought and out-maneuvered all of his colleagues and quickly went to work with the Project of Government Oversight (POGO) to compile a list of contractors that "might be caught in the ACORN net."

Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman both popped up quickly, with 20 fraud cases between them, and the longer list is a Who's Who of weapons manufacturers and defense contractors.

Did you know that Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman had 20 fraud cases between them? And that your Congress didn't care? It's true! Furthermore, let's allow POGO to put all of this into perspective:

Bear in mind that, since 1994, ACORN has reportedly received a total of $53 million in federal funds, or an average of roughly $3.5 million per year. In contrast, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman respectively received over $35 billion and $18 billion in federal contracts last year. (Their totals since 2000 are $266 billion for Lockheed and $125 billion for Northrop.)

Congress should clamp down on contractor fraud and waste, but it needs to keep a sense of proportion. If ACORN broke the law it, should be punished; however, Congress also needs to crack down just as rigorously on the contractors who take an even larger share of taxpayers' money and have committed far more, or far more egregious, acts of misconduct.

And consider this! A taxpayer-funded contractor for Blackwater USA got drunk and murdered an Iraqi in the Green Zone back in October 2007. That's a month after Blackwater employees went on a killing spree in Nisour Square in Baghdad. The taxpayer-funded contractors who guard the State Department facilities in Kabul spend their time taking photos of each other "peeing on one another, simulating anal sex, doing 'butt shots,' and 'eating potato chips out of ass cracks.'" Halliburton, another government contractor, bilked the Pentagon to the tune of $100 million dollars, and basically covered it up through lies and accounting tricks.

And while we're on the subject of ACORN, which had a handful of employees busted for offering assistance to a fake pimp and his fake prostitution business, let's consider the case of taxpayer-funded contractor DynCorp -- its employees actually, LITERALLY, did service a prostitution ring in Bosnia in August of 2002. Girls between the ages of 12 and 15 were involved. And then six years later, employees of the very same contractor went to Iraq and DID IT AGAIN! And this time somebody got killed.

That's one government contractor, two war zones, two continents, two prostitution rings, one known death, zero consequences. What has your member of Congress done about it? SOD ALL, that's what! And DynCorp is still "supporting U.S. interests worldwide."

Now, this isn't to say that the measure passed offers the authority to pursue all of these scofflaws to the ends of the Earth. But Congress surely ought to do whatever it takes to end this wrongdoing and abuse, if for no other reason than that it's done on the taxpayer dime. Aggressive oversight of government contracting and procurement should not be something done on special occasions. It should be the default position of your representatives. When scandals like these bloom, there should be no foot-dragging or excuses or shrugs. But that's what you're getting, in all of these cases.

Oh, but they rushed, tripping over each other in a frenzied panic to be the first and best and loudest person on Capitol Hill to stick it to ACORN, whose transgressions and funding are so paltry by comparison as to be comic. Do not be fooled for a minute that these actions stem from a genuine desire to preserve the integrity of how taxpayer dollars are spent or to preserve your interests. The primary rationale -- the only rationale -- behind your representatives' decision in this matter was to ensure that their electoral hopes don't founder because of a media-driven scandal.

And the proof of this is in the pudding. The only reason the American people have earned a potential tool in guarding against contractor fraud is because Congress created it BY ACCIDENT.

And this is why this is an important story to cover: if the recent ACORN scandal proves anything, it proves that when the media wants to, it can spur and shame legislators into doing their job. And now, by pure happenstance, the media is afforded the opportunity to unleash the hounds of Hell on Congress and get them to use this legislation to go after all sorts of malefactors and fraudsters for widespread abuse of taxpayer trust. And even if every single abuse cannot be prosecuted under this new legislation, the press can hound Congress into doing even more.

This is a moment the media should seize. If they fail to do so, if they fall back on the pose that this is "not their role," if they merely demonstrate that their only interest is the raw political wrangling that drove legislators to mistakenly do some actual good, then the bottom line is this: the media will have aided and abetted far more prostitution than they have pretended to prevent.

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