Playing at reform Posted by: McQ
on Monday, February 06, 2006
Gloria Borger points to what she calls "fake reform" being the result of last week's election of John Boehner as Majority Leader in the House. Her argument?
Now, at least, Boehner's talking about lobbying reform.
But here's the problem: He and other Republicans are decidedly cool to some of the reforms that would really make a difference. They are worried that the proposed rules would go overboard in an effort to try to regain the public trust. They don't want to change the way Congress works, because it works just fine for them. So instead of offering a full reform package last week, what does the House do as its first, symbolic legislative act? It votes to ban ex-members who are now lobbyists from the House gym. All of those nefarious deals cut on the treadmills, now gone! All of that planning for junkets whispered between lifting weights, no more! "I've been going to the gym for 24 years, and I've never been lobbied in the gym," ridiculed Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid. "Of course, I'm pretty ugly naked." Reid may need to keep his towel on; the Senate gym is not affected by the House rule changes.
If this were not true, you could not make it up.
In the immediate Abramoff aftermath, real reform was in the air—with talk of banning corporate-paid travel to boondoggle charity events and lobbyist gifts, which have become a way for members to eat out for free. Yet last week, House Republicans met behind closed doors for more than three hours—and vented about these proposals. Why should they be punished, some asked, when the lobbyists are the bad guys? They're missing the point: While Abramoff may be a convenient villain, the story is not just about lobbyists behaving badly. It is about members behaving badly; it's about some members essentially extorting money from lobbyists who want favors. And since Republicans control Congress, they will get the blame. A sobering thought: The approval rating of congressional Republicans is now lower than the Democrats' rating before they lost power in 1994. And when a recent CBS/ New York Times poll asked which party was "more likely to accept bribes," Republicans won that contest by more than 2 to 1. Not a good sign.
She's right. The scandal isn't about lobbyists behaving badly, It is about congressmen behaving badly. As we've said innumerable times, it is the structure which needs to be changed, and banning former members from the House gym doesn't address that fundamental problem.
Why should House members be punished? They're not being punished. They're being asked to act responsibly and change a system which incentivizes corruption. The unfortunate thing is it is they who have to do it, not some outside agency. There is little doubt that if they had the responsiblity for making similar changes in another agency in which they didn't serve, they'd have no problem whatsoever in doing so. But, if Borger's information is correct, they seem to have no real stomach toward changing their own structure to lessen the chance of corruption.
They've now become the epitome of the party they displaced in 1994. Unless they do more than window-dressing reform, they'll be in the same position as that party in the very near future. Playing at reform only helps the Democrats nationalize their "culture of corruption" theme instead of defusing it. Republicans do that at their own peril.
Remind me of this post from a couple of weeks ago. In the first comment there, I started off with:
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.
Events have pretty much verified that take on things. The Beltway culture has transformed their psychology. They are literally blind to the things the rest of us see, and rather than acknowledge their blindness, instead they think they have superior vision.
I’ve become so convinced that only structural reform (such as term limits, or Constitutional caps on taxes and spending) can really make a difference that I’ve completely lost interest in expending any effort working towards piecemeal reforms. They are nothing more than attempts to sweep back the ocean with a broom.
One argument I’ve heard against term limits is that if a congress critter’s time is office is even shorter, there is MORE incentive to get bribed by lobbyists since they are planning for what they will do after their time in office.
Tito, you may be right that term limits would not help. However, I don’t see how they could possibly make things worse. And we won’t really know what they do until we try.
Nashville’s city councilmen are term limited. I can’t really tell that it’s made any difference. But Nashville has been run by the tottering remains of an old-style Democratic machine for so long, it’s hard to tell what would happen if our election system was an honest one.
I just know that pretend reform efforts have zero chance of any long term impact. So I’ll support something that might work over something I know definitely won’t.