In a new piece for In These Times magazine, I take a look at exactly where most of the corruption is emanating from in Congress these days: The House Appropriations Committee. I used to work on this committee as the chief spokesman for Democrats. When I started there under Rep. Dave Obey (D-WI) - one of the true progressive champions in Congress - I was told by many in Washington that the panel was one of last remaining places in Congress where things actually get done. By the time I left Capitol Hill some two and a half years later, I had learned what all Americans are now realizing: The panel certainly does get things done, but not for the people who elected its members. It gets things done almost exclusively for those lobbyists and corporate interests that buy influence through campaign contributions. The committee has become, in short, the breeding ground of congressional corruption.
Right now, various lawmakers on this committee are under federal investigation. Though the scandals are all different, they revolve around the power of these lawmakers to direct huge amounts of federal cash to campaign donors, often in secret.
Cracking down on this kind of corruption is a tricky thing, because you don't want to encroach on Congress's power of the purse. If you simply cut off appropriator's ability to direct spending, you hand over that power by default to the White House, because ultimately, spending decisions have to be made. Handing over that power is a direct threat to Congress's power of the purse and, thus, the Constitution's separation of powers. That said, there are ways to attack the problem, which I go over in my article.
The Appropriations Committee used to be one of the great committees in Congress - a place that operated above the partisan squabbles. Now, it is a breeding ground for corruption. We can talk all we want about lobbying and ethics reforms, but until we actually address the critical issue of disclosure and the nexis between campaign money and legislative favors, we won't ever address corruption seriously.