"We need to reform the rules so that it is clear, beyond a shadow of a doubt, what is ethically acceptable," said House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.).
Interesting to me that its finally being considered in 2006 because of a scandal. But I digress. The proposal most talked about comes from Dennis Hastert and has the following provisions:
The House Republican lobbying proposal would:
Ban privately financed travel for House members.
Ban gifts worth more than $20, down from the current limit of $50.
Bar former lawmakers who are lobbyists from the House gym and House floor.
Cancel the pensions of House members who are convicted of felonies related to official duties.
Double to two years the ban on former members of Congress or staffers lobbying their former offices.
If the illusion of propriety is as important as the reality of propriety in this case, then ban gifts as well. The very nature of gift giving to legislators can't help but smack of influence buying, regardless of the amount. There is no conceivable reason that it is important that lobbyists be able to give gifts to Congressmen.
"A member of Congress should be able to accept a baseball cap or a T-shirt from the proud students of a local middle school," Hastert said. "But he or she doesn't need to be taken to lunch or dinner by a Washington lobbyist."
Yes Mr. Hastert, and there is a distinct difference between receiving a one-time gift such as a T-shirt or a cap from a constituent and gifts from a registered lobbyiest, isn't there? So there is no reason any registered lobbyist should be giving you a gift that I can imagine.
Obviously access is another area of interest. The solution? Ban former Representatives from the House floor and the House gym.
The House leaders also would eliminate some perks for former members of Congress who have joined the well-paid lobbying community. Currently, former members of Congress who are lobbyists are entitled to circulate on the House floor while representatives are voting on issues they follow, allowing them to buttonhole former colleagues at the last minute before they vote.
Representatives-turned-lobbyists also enjoy full privileges at the Capitol's exclusive members-only gyms, where they have the ear of former colleagues. Those privileges would be revoked under the proposal.
It's a start. Hastert is also proposing to double to two years the ban on former staffers or former Congressmen from engaging in lobbying efforts. Personally, I'd like to see that expanded to 5 years simply because it would go a long way in breaking up the "old-boy" culture that is rife in DC.
Unfortunately, even with these relatively minor changes, you have potential reformers seeking the majority leadership spot waffling:
"Many trips are truly educational, and I believe a complete ban on all private travel would be an overreaction that doesn't get to the root of the problem," said Rep. John Shadegg (R-Ariz.), one of three candidates vying to succeed Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) as House majority leader.
One can imagine the definition, given the track record of this crowd, of "educational trips" being expanded beyond all recognition if this exception is made. And, of course, you can imagine who would be left to make that determination.
Then there's the Senate:
On Tuesday, Hastert and high-ranking Senate Republicans, led by Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania and John McCain of Arizona, said they would eliminate these privately funded fact-finding trips as part of a comprehensive ethics package they hoped would begin moving through Congress early next month. The senators also said they would restrict gifts to lawmakers but apparently would not ban meals, as Hastert said he intended to propose.
But to the true loophole.
According to lobbyists and ethics experts, even if Hastert's proposal is enacted, members of Congress and their staffs could still travel the world at an interest group's expense and eat on a lobbyist's account at the priciest restaurants in Washington.
The only requirement would be that whenever a lobbyist pays the bill, he or she also must hand the lawmaker a campaign contribution. Then the transaction would be perfectly OK.
"That's a big hole if they don't address campaign finance," said Joel Jankowsky, the lobbying chief of Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, one of the capital's largest lobbying outfits.
In other words, in the realm of campaign finance, lobbying remains unchanged. And, to conduct business as usual with Congress, all lobbyists now have to do is attach a little political fundraiser on their activities to make it kosher.
The plans offered Tuesday by Republican leaders would change two of the three areas of law or regulation that govern lobbying: the congressional rules that limit gifts to lawmakers and the laws that dictate the amount of disclosure that lobbyists must give the public.
A third major area —- campaign finance laws —- would go untouched. That amounts to a huge loophole in efforts to distance lobbyists from the people they are paid to influence.
Anything that members of Congress can now do in the pursuit of money for their re-elections would still be permitted —- including accepting lobbyist-paid travel and in-town meals —- unless campaign finance laws are altered.
"Political contributions are specifically exempted from the definition of what a gift is in House and Senate gift rules," said Kenneth Gross, an ethics lawyer at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom. "So, unless the campaign finance laws are changed, if a lobbyist wants to sponsor an event at the MCI arena or on the slopes of Colorado, as long as it's a fund-raiser it would still be fine."
The result, he added, "may well be more out-of-town fund-raising events than there are at the moment."
Paul Miller, president of the American League of Lobbyists, said of the loophole, "You may see a shift from what we're able to do now to the political fundraiser side where it is legal."
"May?" We "may" see a shift? Of course we'll see a shift and we'll see it rather quickly.
None of the lawmakers, however, said they would end travel and meals supplied by lobbyists as part of fundraising events, which at least for now would leave the loophole open.
Rep. David Dreier (R-Calif.), Hastert's point man on the lobbying issue, said he was tasked to deal with lobbying laws, not campaign finance laws, which he sees as a separate issue.
Does all this waffling and equivocating give you a warm fuzzy about how serious the Republicans are taking this scandal?
Would someone tell Reps. Hastert and Dreier that it isn't about "the lobbying issue" but about how lobbying is corrupting Congress and the means to correct that? That means if the corruption is possible through existing campaign finance laws, then you address it there as well. It is not a separate issue. If it is unethical to travel with a lobbyist under one set of circumstances, how does it become ethical to do so when campaign money is involved?
"I believe that to regain the trust of the American people that this institution must go further than prosecuting the bad actors," Hastert said. "We need to reform the rules so it's clear beyond a shadow of a doubt what is ethically acceptable for members of Congress."
But the reality is nothing changes as long as the area of campaign finance is left alone. And, as is human nature, the influence peddlers will simply adjust their approach to conform with the new reality and, as Paul Miller noted: "You may see a shift from what we're able to do now to the political fundraiser side where it is legal."
These guys, Hastert et al included, really only want to solve one problem - the appearance that they are captive to lobbyists. They don’t really think they’re doing anything wrong. Trips, gifts, whatever - they genuinely don’t believe those things affect their judgement. They simply know that it looks bad and gives reporters and political opponents something to whack them with, so they want to do something about the surface appearance while continuing business as usual.
And, in a sense, they’re right. Any individual lobbyist gift probably doesn’t generate an explicit quid pro quo. The real problem is much more insidious than that.
Let’s look at an example with which I am mildly familiar. Bill Frist went to Washington after beating a political hack named Jim Sassar. Frist campaigned in 1994 as a real conservative - a Senate counterpart to the same positioning being done at the time by Newt Gingrich in the House.
After less than four years in DC, I saw Frist give a speech to a local group of businessmen. His theme was how much government can help business. It was the type of stuff I would have expected to hear from a liberal. It would have been perfectly appropriate coming from the mouth of the hack he defeated a few years earlier.
Frist had been captured (and remains captured) by the DC culture. Lobbyists are merely part of that. The culture revolved around power and adulation. Anyone who gets into Congress has to have a very, very strong personality to resist being molded by that culture into just another political drone.
Frist couldn’t resist it, and he’s a smart man. (You don’t get to be one of the leading heart surgeons in the nation without being pretty bright.) Frist was an outsider with no political experience, which means to many grassroots advocates, he was the Holy Grail of candidates. Yet now he’s no different than the rest. His inexperience actually worked to speed his assimilation because he knew nothing of economics or political thinking, and was easy meat for the staffers and lobbyists that control most day-to-day political activity in DC.
Based on the Frist case, I don’t think any reform so far mentioned will amount to anything of consequence. The gifts and other perks don’t really matter. They’re just a form of competition among the lobbyists to see who gets the attention. As long as the time of Congressmen and Senators is mostly taken up talking to lobbyists, it doesn’t make a bloody bit of difference who pays for lunch. The DC culture will still be controlling things, and the government will still keep growing and being more intrusive.
Until a structural reform starts keeping members of Congress away from the DC culture, nothing of consequence will change. The lobbyists will still control the information flow to the politicians and their staffers, and everything that gets through Congress will reflect the desires of the political class and the "government is good" culture of DC.
So I view the current exercise in rulemaking as pointless. If we’ve very lucky, it might have some marginal effect. More likely it will be just be putting more cat litter in the box. The cat poop is still in there, but the smell is covered up for a while.
I think these lobbying prohibitions simply raise the costs (psychic and monetary) of an important, marketable commodity: political influence. The result is a perverted market for this commodity, and the further growth of an unaccountable blackmarket.
As such, the laws of supply and demand cannot be ignored. As an example consider the renewed interest in Oil-sands. The high price of Oil is making this previously uneconomic fossil-fuel source a newly-viable one. The result is more oil is made available, not less.
Segue to national politics and influence peddling: what will be the results of an artificially-increased price for the commodity called "influence?" Like most market perversions, the effects of this one will mostly be unforeseeable. But I’ll take a stab at it. I expect to see:
1. the blackmarket in "influence" will proliferate. Expect more undocumented payments, favors and gifts, to politicians.
2. The brokers of influence-sales will be impacted. Lobbyists will work harder to conceal their brokerage activities, and the names of their market contacts.
3. The end-users of "influence", Interest groups, will become less distinct. Interest groups will amalgamate to form herds where individual "buyers" of influence can blend in and avoid being spotted in the crowd. Many will seek to evade detection by relocating offshore.
4. The sellers of "influence," the politicians, will demand better "plausible deniability" and so will increasingly impose the brokers (lobbyists) of influence-sales between themselves and the buyer.
I’m not sold. What if we legalized these inevitable commodity transactions and established an electronic exchange to track them, instead? -Steve
Since petitioning the government for the redress of grievances is one of the things that Congress was told explicitly that it could not make such a law, why all the fuss about lobbying? Why is my right to hire a petitioner directly or indirectly through the voluntary associations that I make (like the NRA) being abridged?
If you want to limit "influence peddling", limit the power of government to grant favors or inflict damage upon individuals and/or their voluntary associations. Additionally, simply publish the names, dates, etc of the petitioned and the petitioners within 24 hours on the Internet, 48 hrs in the Congressional Record, and 72 hrs in the rest of the press.