Capuano’s Legislative Hallmarks Are Earmarks, Ethics

Posted November 16, 2009 at 6:17pm

In the first televised debate of the Massachusetts Senate special election last month, Rep. Mike Capuano (D) observed wryly that his three Democratic opponents “should come to me when they want to know how Washington works. I’m happy to train them.—

Since then, he has been increasingly explicit in making his Washington experience and record in Congress the rationale for his candidacy. But Capuano’s attempts

to paint himself as the consummate political insider — the most capable, he says of “bringing home the bacon— — appears to overstate his clout and obscures the true nature of the record he has compiled in his decade in the House.

His argument has also failed to convince primary voters, who continue to back state Attorney General Martha Coakley (D) by a substantial margin over Capuano and fellow primary contenders Stephen Pagliuca, co-owner of the Boston Celtics, and Alan Khazei, co-founder of the pioneering community service program City Year.

“I don’t think his experience or what he’s selling is so overwhelming or so clear-cut— as the campaign is trying to portray it, said Jeffrey Berry, a political science professor at Tufts University, which is in Capuano’s Boston-area district. “He keeps declaring that he’s experienced and he keeps declaring that he’s a leader but … the pudding proof is hard to discern.—

One of Capuano’s major selling points on the campaign trail has been his ability to deliver federal funding to the district, particularly transportation funds via his post on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. In one of his television ads, the six-term Congressman declares that he has helped deliver federal funds for the health care, research and biotech industries in the state and has “also won record federal funding for transportation projects.—

“In the Senate, I can do a lot more,— he promises.

Steve Ellis, vice president of the nonpartisan watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense, says it is difficult to determine how much credit Capuano really deserves for securing what his campaign claims is $5.2 billion for infrastructure projects in the 2003 highway bill reauthorization.

“When they did the last highway bill, there was no earmark disclosure as to who got what,— Ellis said.

However, a look at Taxpayers for Common Sense’s earmark databases for the 2008 and 2009 fiscal years shows Capuano did not distinguish himself in terms of the funding he brought back to his district.

In 2009, Capuano ranked 187th in the House in the amount of earmarks he obtained individually and with other Members. On solo earmarks, he ranked 76th. In 2008, he stood at 138 in the combined ranking.

“For a non-appropriator, he does fairly well,— Ellis said. However, Ellis observed, when it comes to earmarking, “there’s sort of the top— — lawmakers such as Reps. Neil Abercrombie (D-Hawaii). Bill Young (R-Fla.), John Murtha (D-Pa.) and David Obey (D-Wis.), the latter three senior members of the Appropriations Committee who all raked in more than $100 million in earmarks in 2009 — and then there is “everybody else.—

Capuano falls amid a long list of Members who nabbed between $20 million and $30 million in earmarks in the last fiscal year.

Capuano’s emphasis on earmarks and federal funding has raised the thorny issue of Congressional ethics and pay-to-play politics, something Capuano’s opponents seized on in a radio debate last week.

The Congressman has to tread especially carefully given his ties to the PMA Group, the lobbying firm under federal investigation for making donations in exchange for earmarks and other political aid. There is no indication Capuano is under investigation; however, he donated to charity the contributions from PMA employees, and clients to his campaign committee and said he will do the same for his political action committee.

In general, Capuano has defended earmarks as transparent, noting they are subject to amendment by other Members.

In a local radio interview Friday, Capuano said he has at times had to defend his earmark requests on the House floor. “I like being judged on whatever I’ve done and not done,— he said.

Capuano has also sought to buffer any ethical critiques by noting that he chaired the House Special Task Force on Ethics, convened by Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) in 2007, which drove the creation of the Office of Congressional Ethics. “The most important ethics reform in a generation got passed in the United States Congress because of me,— he said during a campaign appearance in Pittsfield, Mass., last month. “I wrote it, I worked it, I fought for it for over a year. … How did it happen? Because I understand how to get things done.—

But Capuano’s record on ethics reform displays far more ambivalence about tightening restrictions on lawmakers and their interactions with lobbyists. Though he voted for the final package, Capuano was not an early advocate of the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act, which created a bevy of new regulations and disclosure requirements on lawmakers and lobbyists. A New York Times article from May 2007 quoted him defending his opposition to a bundling disclosure proposal and an extension of the “revolving door— ban on lobbying by elected officials. “It is like saying to people, ‘Please, come into public service, give it your all, and when you are done you are completely unqualified for anything else,’— he told the Times.

Meredith McGehee, policy director at pro-ethics-reform group Campaign Legal Center, said the nonpartisan group had “zero interaction— with Capuano on ethics issues prior to his appointment.

“He was selected for that job by Pelosi because she knew that the ‘Old Bulls’ trusted him not to go crazy,— McGehee said. “He understood the political imperative: … Do something on ethics that would pass muster.—

The ethics task force was in fact one of many posts that Democratic leaders have entrusted to Capuano, the one area, more than any other, where his insider claims hold water. The Speaker tapped Capuano, a close ally, to head a task force to re-examine House Democratic Caucus rules and as the head of the House Democrats’ transition team after they won the majority in the 2006 elections. He also served as whip of Rep. John Larson’s (Conn.) 2005 campaign for Democratic Caucus vice chairman. Larson is now the Caucus chairman.

He is a regular member of the “Pennsylvania Corner,— named for the back-row aisle in the House chamber that unofficially belongs to Murtha and his allies.

Capuano has tapped these ties, as well as his status as the only member of the delegation to run for the late Sen. Edward Kennedy’s (D) seat, to roll out a series of endorsements from colleagues, including Pelosi and five of the nine other Massachusetts House Democrats, all of whom have talked up his leadership and his efficacy in Congress.

When it comes to his persona in the district, however, Capuano’s image is “not that of a mover and shaker but of a hard-working, blue-collar guy that fights hard for his district and stands up for what he believes in,— Berry said. He has made a name for himself as a staunch opponent of the Iraq War and now a proposed increase of troops in Afghanistan. Despite being Catholic, he supports abortion rights and stem cell research and is a proponent of a robust public insurance option in the health care overhaul. But he balances an outspoken progressive agenda with an amiable demeanor that has allowed him to build relationships across the aisle.

His effort to couch himself as an insider, Berry surmised, “is more a strategy borne of desperation rather than clever politics.—

His first strategy “was to campaign to the left of Martha Coakley,— which “failed to move the numbers.—

“Second, he was a leader and she was someone who put her finger to the wind,— but that also failed to gain traction. With the primary looming Dec. 8, Berry said, “I’m having trouble coming up with a plausible scenario— in which he overtakes the attorney general.