Want to Understand Congress? Follow the Money

NOTE: This is a guest post by Joe Newman at the Project on Government Oversight

Remember last summer when everyone thought the sky was falling?

The mounting budget deficit had Chicken Littles on both sides of the aisle crying doom and gloom. There was hemming and hawing and the obligatory appointment of a special-joint-bipartisan-really-important Congressional panel.

Super Committee, anyone?

It seems the more things change, the more they stay exactly the same.

As Congress gets down this month to approving hundreds of billions of dollars in national security programs and policies, the deficit is hardly front and center.

The version of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that the House of Representatives passed Friday is $3 billion fatter than President Obama’s defense budget request and about $58 billion more than the potential automatic cut established by the House-approved budget deal from last year.


The defense bill gets passed every year, authorizing the Pentagon to move troops around, build new bases, buy more fighter jets, battleships and everything else that makes the U.S. far and away the owner of the world’s most expensive military.

With the Senate set to take up its version of the NDAA yesterday, it’s a good time to remember why it’s important to “follow the money” if you really want to understand how Congress works.

The House deliberations gave us a great example. Leading up to the NDAA vote, the House and Senate Appropriations Committees had already canceled funding for a $6 billion plutonium laboratory . The committees agreed with a Pentagon and the National Nuclear Security Administration recommendation that the proposed facility at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico was unnecessary.

For once, it seemed reasonable heads had prevailed. It made no sense to put money toward a facility that would produce nuclear warhead components when we already have more than enough components stockpiled, and we’re operating under treaties that call for the U.S. to reduce its nuclear arsenal.

Then Rep. Mike Turner (R-Ohio) added provisions to the NDAA that took the money for the plutonium lab that had been cut from the Department of Energy’s budget and added it to the Department of Defense’s budget.

Project On Government Oversight (POGO) Executive Director Danielle Brian and Nickolas Roth of the Center for International Security Studies wondered on The Hill’s Congress Blog why Turner worked so hard to save a facility that no one else seemed to want.

However, if you follow the money, you can see why Turner might have an interest in what happens at Los Alamos. A cursory look at Turner’s contributions on OpenSecrets.org during this election cycle show he has received at least $70,000 from companies that either have ties to the Los Alamos National Laboratory or do work in related areas and could conceivably work on future projects with the lab. His contributors include Bechtel and Babcock & Wilcox, which manage the Los Alamos lab.

Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) offered an amendment that would have cut the money for the Los Alamos plutonium facility out of the defense budget but the amendment failed to get to the floor for a vote.

We hope that when the Senate Armed Services Committee marks up its NDAA bill it will not follow Turner’s lead. But we may not know for days or weeks, because the committee will likely do the public’s business on the NDAA behind closed doors once again. Unless Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) decides to allow the public in on what bill and amendments will be debated — or five more senators vote against closing the markup this year — the public will be shut out as the committee decides how hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars should be spent. [Go to OpenNDAA.org to see which senators voted to close the hearings and which voted to open them up last year.]

What happens when Congress does the public’s business in secret? The well-connected corporate lobbyists, fundraisers and campaign contributors are the ones who benefit the most because of their insider access. If a senator pulls a Turner-esque move to add something to the NDAA, we won’t know about it until after the fact.

It makes you wonder what the Senate Armed Services Committee is trying to hide.


The Project On Government Oversight (POGO) is an independent nonprofit that investigates and exposes corruption and other misconduct in order to achieve a more effective, accountable, open, and ethical federal government.

This article was cross-posted at the Huffington Post.

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Major Campaign Finance Loophole Closed…For Now

Photo courtesy of Project on Government Oversight


Troy G.
Troy Grant5 years ago

Too big to jail

Bridget N.
Bridget N5 years ago

Just stole $50 in OTC meds for some guy i see now and then (homeless is assume, or very lacking) - he had a cough, I had empty pockets - Walmart Charges way too much for generic meds, shame on walmart, and shame on pfizer and equate for using the same exact ingrediants and %'s as the name brand, but only charging 50% for generic. - Fight the system with crime and theft, our government and politicians do it everyday, why cant the needy?

Ron B.
Ron B5 years ago

Of course. For politicians AND corporations it always has been about the money and it always will be about the money.

Lois Jordan
Lois Jordan5 years ago

Gene J. and Susan T. have hit the nail on the head with their comments. MT challenged Citizens United with a decades old state law, and now it looks like SCOTUS will be hearing that. Considering that 5 justices are always siding with the Corporate view, I don't have much hope, but am still keeping my fingers crossed. Our representatives are no longer beholden to their own constituents. 99% of us are in the same boat, but they vote for the best interests of the 1% who fund their elections. Not to mention their allegiance to Grover Norquist--both Dems and Reps have signed his promise not to raise taxes on the wealthiest. In fact, any Rep that goes against this promise goes unfunded by the Rep. party in their next election cycle, and they never are put in charge of a congressional committee.
It's a no-brainer for me--defunding the Military Industrial Corporate Complex, raising taxes on the 1%, removing their tax loopholes, and imposing a Financial Transaction Tax (which hundreds of nurses marched in Chicago for last Fri) would go a long way to not only reducing the deficit, but also helping those most in need of our safety net.

Vicky Pitchford
Vicky P5 years ago

Pretty much everyone in politics has their hand in big companies such as oil, etc pockets.

Jamie Clemons
Jamie Clemons5 years ago

NDAA another reason why Oboma has out Bushed Bush.

Yvette T.
Past Member 5 years ago

I still can not believe that it is legal for any politicians who represent e, the people, to accept any money at all from any outside entities. They should work for their salaries courtesy of our tax dollars, and be thrown in jail should any more ever cross their palms. Lobbying using money must be outlawed. Corporate donations to campaigns, as well. Only what we contribute to campaigns should be allowed..grass roots. Greed was the motivation for massacre and theft of land of human beings, buffalo, etc, and it seems that as long as greed remains the dominant factor in how things work, and the poorer the citizens of the US become, the more likely it will be for many to experience a taste of the loss and mistreatment that those who were here first had to endure. Greed is very destructive to all things ethical and of the Spirit. Seeing Andrew Jackson honored on the $20 bill says it all. He represents genocide for material gain, favoritism.

TERRANCE N5 years ago

Sad to say but most of our elected representatives are like drug addicted(to corporate donations) women of the streets who have no principals when it comes to representing the American people.

We the people are 50% part of the blame for this situation. We value American idol more than we value our democracy.

Given the choice of becoming a millionaire politician or doing the hard work representation demands; it's obvious what route most of us would choose. Reagan and Clinton led this charge of caring for the powerful while enriching themselves.

Susan T.
Susan T5 years ago

Paula M - pork barrel spending knows no party. You're kidding yourself if you think that Republicans have truly fought it - they just want to appear as though they fight it, then dish it up for their own districts or their campaign contributors.

There is a fine line between fighting for what your district needs, and just lining up to the trough. The former is necessary, the latter is politics as usual.

Here's just a few links on pork barrel spending by Republicans. As I said, it knows no party so I'm not excusing Dems.





Nadine Hudak
Nadine H5 years ago