Is Duke a Symptom?

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This Duke Cunningham story, I’m guessing, will mostly focus on the corruption angle. Here you have a congressman on the Appropriation Committee’s defense subcommittee taking bribes in exchange for helping a defense contractor win contracts. What a sleazeball, etc. For shame, etc. In an ideal world, though, the attention would focus on the much larger problem of the defense appropriations process in general, which makes this sort of thing inevitable.

Defense contractors literally live or die on the contracts that Congress decides to hand out. Most of them have grown up under the mini-command economy that is the annual defense appropriations bill, and wouldn’t know how to survive in the free market. Not surprisingly, 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. Under the circumstances, what happened with Cunningham was bad and illegal, but not completely out of step with the larger trend here.

Even more interesting than Cunningham, perhaps, is MZM Inc., the company that bribed the Duke. 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.

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It sure feels that way to me, and here at Mother Jones, we’ve been thinking a lot about what journalism needs to do differently, and how we can have the biggest impact.

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Clara Jeffery, Editor-in-Chief

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