November 28, 2005


The Duke Cunningham story, I'm guessing, will mostly focus on the corruption angle. And why not? You have a congressman on the defense appropriation committee taking bribes in exchange for helping a defense contractor win contracts. What a sleazeball, etc. But in an ideal world, some attention would get focused on the much larger problem of the defense appropriations process in general, which makes this sort of corruption almost inevitable.

Defense contractors live or die on the contracts Congress decides to hand out. Most of them have grown up under the command economy that is the annual defense appropriations bill, and wouldn't know how to survive in the free market. Understandably, then, contractors tend to put a lot of effort into lobbying and influencing legislators. Between 1997 and 2004, the top 20 defense contractors made $46 million in campaign contributions, and spent $390 million on lobbyists—and were rewarded for their efforts with $560 billion in contracts. Then there's a permanent revolving door between government and the defense industry, which is laid out in gory detail by the Project on Government Oversight. A lot of money gets sloshed around, and while most of it isn't flat-out bribery, it often comes close. Under the circumstances, what happened with Cunningham was bad and illegal, but not completely out of step with the larger trend.

Even more interesting than Cunningham, meanwhile, is MZM Inc., the company that bribed him. The Los Angeles Times reports that the company has received "$163 million in federal contracts, mostly for classified defense projects involving the gathering and analysis of intelligence." Just to be clear, a firm that bought a house for a corrupt Congressman is doing "classified" intelligence work. Okay, then.
-- Brad Plumer 5:01 PM || ||