PMA pork-for-pay and the old nontransparency

Republican Rep. Jeff Flake from Arizona is making a name for himself rooting out earmarks to indict the professionalized “pay-to-play” culture of Congress. His Web site tracks the fruits of his investigation so far, listing earmarks tied to clients of embattled big-time lobbying firm PMA, which doled out campaign contributions to members of Congress across the country, including Colorado’s Ed Perlmutter, Mark Udall and Doug Lamborn. This morning Flake had an op-ed in the New York Times on the unspooling scandal.

“Is there a substantive difference between [Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich] promising a Senate appointment in exchange for campaign contributions and a member of Congress securing an earmark for the same — aside from a vulgar telephone call discussing the transaction?” he ask his Times readers. His answer is no.

In addition to shining a spotlight on the way Congress does business and gets people paid, the op-ed — and the PMA scandal more broadly — highlight the need for increased government transparency, a cause celebrated and given momentum by the path-breaking Web 2.0-powered Obama election campaign.

Flake, with what seem like eyes too wide for a fifth-term congressman, details what political reporters and government watchdog groups take for granted: That it is painstaking work to follow the money and untangle the web that loops back and forth between campaign coffers and sweet-deal legislation. Flake shares some of what he has learned in following the case:

The 2009 defense appropriations bill … contained more than 1000 House earmarks, dozens of which were for PMA clients. There was no full committee “markup” where such links could be examined, nor were challenges to the earmarks allowed on the House floor. Further, unless it’s been hurriedly scrubbed by an alert staff member, the omnibus appropriations bill scheduled for debate this week includes many [more] earmarks for PMA clients.

Congressional Quarterly last week posted a pay-to-play chart it compiled of House members who secured earmarks for PMA clients and who also received campaign contributions from PMA or from one or more of its clients. The paragraph at the bottom of the chart on methodology points to the kind of network of reporters it takes to bring this information into the light of day.

The watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense put together a database of the earmarks secured for PMA clients. CQ analyzed that to determine how many House members got earmarks for PMA clients and how much each lawmaker got in total for PMA clients. The data for campaign contributions comes from CQ MoneyLine, which used information compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics to help identify PMA employees.

Flake also mentions in his op-ed a database of defense earmarks compiled by The Seattle Times. The database is called “The Favor Factory,” and it’s worth a visit. (Warning: You might end up staying a while.) Here’s the description the paper posted on the steps its researchers took to connect the dots and fill the chart. It ain’t pretty. It’s something like dissertation writing by committee on a deadline or filing your freelance-income taxes for the last three years the night before they’re due.

The paper also calls on readers to help in its investigation. It notes that, despite a recent law requiring members of Congress to report the earmarks they’re sponsoring, last year 155 earmarks were orphaned; that is, no congressional fathers or mothers came forward to take responsibility for the $3.5 billion tab the “mystery earmarks” ran up for taxpayers. “Please contact us with any helpful information you may have about these programs,” the paper asks.

I read that request for help twice when I first came upon it. I wondered if it were written with irony, an editor’s sardonic reference to the billboard and milk-carton missing persons campaigns of the pre-Internet era. But no, I think it’s written completely straight, and for that reason is the most eloquent call for new transparency guidelines and technology you’re likely to find.

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