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A New Look at Earmarks: Pinstripe Patronage

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Timing is everything, as any .300 hitter or candidate for public office can tell you, and the timing couldn't be better for a new book that's creating a buzz in the nation's Capital.

It's called Pinstripe Patronage: Political Favoritism from the Clubhouse to the White House and Beyond (Paradigm Publishers) and it's about how the world's second oldest profession, lobbying, has evolved into the second biggest business in Washington, next to the federal government, at the outset of the 21st century.

Written by veteran political journalist Martin Tolchin and his wife, political science professor Susan Tolchin, it hit the bookstores in October, not long after the U.S. Supreme Court eviscerated earlier rulings that restricted campaign spending by corporations and unions, opening the floodgates to record spending in the 2010 mid-term elections, estimated at $4 billion.

At the same time, the book's publication coincides with a string of scandals related to political favor seeking, highlighted by Casino Jack, the new movie about disgraced and just-out-of-jail lobbyist Jack Abramoff, along with alleged corruption and ethics violations by a host of politicians like former Illinois Governor Rob Blagojevich, Congressman Charles Rangel and former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, not to federal regulators turning a blind eye to criminal wheeler dealers like Bernie Madoff and multi-million-dollar payoffs to political factions in Iraq and Afghanistan.

They also cite some timely examples of the downside of political favor-seeking at the local level, including the Washington suburb of Prince Georges County, Maryland, where County Executive Jack Johnson awarded more than fifty consulting and other contracts worth millions of dollars to friends and political backers, many with little development experience, during his first four years in office. In November, the FBI arrested both him and his wife, who famously hid nearly $80,000 in cash in her bra, on criminal charges.

All this at a time when political earmarks have become a dirty word, which fueled Tea Party anger and helped Republicans capture control of the House in the mid-term elections after President Obama supported hundreds of earmarks in order to pass his economic stimulus bill and healthcare reform legislation, even after he campaigned against them.

The book, the Tolchins' eighth, is a sequel to their 1971 book about political patronage. They decided to revisit the topic after the U.S. Supreme Court issued the first of five decisions in 1976 - each of which cited their earlier book - restricting patronage in both jobs and government contracts.

"We wanted to see the impact of those decisions on the politics and lives of ordinary Americans," they said. "We discovered that these decisions were more honored in the breach than they were implemented, instead restricting patronage to those high-ranking jobs that involved policy and confidentiality."

The Tolchins -- he's a former New York Times White House reporter who later launched both The Hill and Politico [Disclosure: he hired me as editor of The Hill when he started it in 1994] argue that patronage "is as old as the Republic and virtually universal, an essential tool of government, but highly susceptible to corruption and abuse."

They note that while it has helped presidents from George Washington to Barack Obama persuade Congress to enact far-reaching legislation while allowing members to take care of the needs of their constituents, it has "also led to millions in unnecessary projects, and tempted many politicians to line their own pockets with funds intended for public use."

Even though the U.S. Supreme Court has, on five occasions, virtually outlawed patronage in the awarding jobs and contracts, the authors declare that "political favors are bigger and better than ever. The soaring growth of government in the last century has meant a proliferation of jobs, contracts, and all the coveted positions that fill out the ranks of the hybrids, which make Tammany Hall look like an Elysian field. Government's increased reach has geometrically increased the power of politicians to make or break those they govern."

For example, they point out that there are more contract employees in Iraq and Afghanistan than military and civilian personnel. And companies like Halliburton and Blackwater have had to return hundreds of millions of dollars in overcharges. Meanwhile, political favoritism reigns supreme throughout the U.S.

"Smaller government, less regulation, and more outsourcing does indeed mean great profits for business, especially contractors, often handpicked, who perform work previously done by government," they write. "But this combination has often left the public in the lurch.

"Sadly, public expectations of government and the harsh realities of daily life often find themselves at odds. At the site of every tragedy, angry citizens call for government intervention, and there is usually hell to pay for politicians who ignore their needs," as in the aftermath of natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina and the Gulf of Mexico oil spills.

But, the authors conclude, "In the final analysis, political patronage is as messy and unpredictable as democracy itself. The key is to understand it, force it to bend in the direction of the public good, and weed out leaders who succumb to its temptations. For all its flaws, patronage is an inextricable part of politics and government, and those who regard with disdain do so at their peril."

As Don Wolfensberger, congressional scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars, said, "This is not just a good book, but a great book. I found myself having to rethink a lot things about government. It covers not only the waterfront but the whole pond, right down to the bottom."