The upcoming ethics fight in Congress Posted by: McQ
on Wednesday, November 22, 2006
One of the things I think will become evident with the new Democratic Congress is that it isn't only Republicans who oppose ethics reform (or aren't particularly keen on it) it is Democrats as well.
The reasons are many. For one, they've been out of power for 12 years and now feel a sense of entitlement to some 'political spoils'. But that isn't the primary reason. As Jon has pointed out in the past, the primary reason is systemic. The system provides too many opportunities for unethical and corrupt behavior. For better or worse, constituents judge their legislators on how much pork they can bring home while simultaneously decrying earmarks and pork legislated by other members of Congress.
Lastly, there is the curb to their power, especially on some of the more powerful committees, that reform would bring. There is an inherent sense of entitlement to that power among certain committee members and they are mostly unwilling to give it up.
Spurred by the election results, several Democrats in addition to Mr. Obama are pushing bigger changes. Senator Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, the No. 2 Democrat in the Senate, is preparing a proposal for some form of public financing or free broadcast time for Congressional candidates to reduce their dependence on campaign donors. Common Cause says that 21 newly elected Democrats, more than half the class, and 69 incumbents have signed a pledge endorsing the idea.
That idea, however, has never gained much traction in Congress, in part because lawmakers balk at the notion of helping challengers who want their jobs. “You use taxpayer dollars to finance people who may not only be fringe candidates but — I was going to use the term ‘nut’— may be mentally incompetent,” Ms. Feinstein said.
Public financing? While not at all for such a thing, I wanted to use the example to show a very simple dynamic at work. While Ms. Feinstein, by ideology, might be for public financing, in reality it would provide her challenger with too much of an opportunity to unseat her. Her problem with it isn't the "nuts" it might finance, it's the serious challenger which it might put on par with here financially. It is the power of her incumbency which is at stake.
That sort of dilemma presents itself over and over again when one talks about ethics reform.
The Democratic proposals seek more “transparency” in earmarks. But the House proposal would apply only to “district-oriented earmarks,” that is, projects obtained for constituents. Lawmakers already boast of sponsoring such items. The earmarks involved in corruption cases are often directed to contractors or campaign contributors elsewhere.
The Senate proposal would require the disclosure of the lawmaker who requested any earmark for funds paid directly to people outside the federal government, like a grant for a health clinic in a lawmaker’s hometown. But that would not address most earmarks because they are funneled through the defense department or other government agencies to contractors.
Two points. Just because a "district oriented earmark" is made visible doesn't mean it isn't going to be passed or funded. It simply means it will be visible. Secondly, earmarks in and of themselves are only the tip of the iceberg. As one of the Republican leadership candidates, Jack Kingston, pointed out, tax loopholes granted are much more costly for the most part than are earmarks yet they are almost completely ignored. Does anyone doubt that if earmarks become politically unpopular that another method of granting favors won't be found? Heck, it already exists.
Note how both the Senate and House proposals described above scrupulously avoid mentioning earmarks for contractors outside a district. Earmarks for districts actually have a chance of being passed because few if any constituents in that district are going to argue against their congressman bringing money into their district. But as noted, that's not true with money going outside the district ... and it is that which both proposals ignore.
Even more proposals on earmarks:
Two House Democrats, Representatives Chris Van Hollen of Maryland and Rahm Emanuel of Illinois, have proposed a measure they say would block a lawmaker from requesting an earmark that would benefit a company, group or lobbying firm that employed a member of the lawmaker’s family or a former member of the lawmaker’s staff.
“The rules would prohibit any kind of self-dealing,” Mr. Van Hollen said in an interview, acknowledging that his party’s support for the idea remains to be seen. “It will be something of an indication of how serious we are about reform.”
Mr. Obama called the idea “sensible” and said he supported it. But almost no one expects the Democrats to enact such a change, in part because many have close ties to former staff members or family members in the lobbying business.
Ms. Feinstein, for example, said she hoped to extend the Senate bill to require disclosure of all earmarks, including defense projects. But she said she would oppose a measure like Mr. Van Hollen’s because it would prevent her from directing funds to California cities because their lobbyists include former staff members.
Obviously if you support reform on earmarks you don't just want them "transparent", you want them justified, and if they can't be justified you want them defeated or blocked. As Obama said, that's "sensible."
Well maybe in the real world but we're talking the world of politics in Washington DC and there power and progress are measured by delivering dollars to districts. So while it may seem reasonable to most, it is most unreasonable to our representatives, and Sen. Feinstein understands how it would impact her ability to fulfill her primary mission (and thus help her chances of retaining her position).
So it is anyone's guess as to how serious Democrats really are about making substantive changes in ethics laws which govern Congress. For instance none of the proposals touch on campaign finance laws. The reason should be obvious. The laws, as written today, favor incumbents, and that is a bi-partisan advantage.
Right now two of the people to watch are Senators Obama and Feinstein. It is they who will provide the key to the seriousness of this call to improve Congressional ethics.
Senator Barack Obama, an Illinois Democrat tapped by party leaders last year to spearhead ethics proposals, said he was pushing for changes with more teeth. “The dynamic is different now,” Mr. Obama said Friday. “We control both chambers now, so it is difficult for us to have an excuse for not doing anything.”
He is pushing to create an independent Congressional ethics commission and advocates broader campaign-finance changes as well. “We need to make sure that those of us who are elected are not dependent on a narrow spectrum of individuals to finance our campaigns,” he said.
If Obama manages to get his way and have Congress establish an independent Congressional ethics commission as well as changes in the campaign-finance laws, I'll concede that the Dems are serious about reform.
However he's going to have to get that past Sen. Feinstein first:
Senator Dianne Feinstein, the California Democrat who will oversee any proposal as the incoming chairwoman of the Rules Committee, for example, said she was opposed to an independent Congressional ethics watchdog. “If the law is clear and precise, members will follow it,” she said in an interview. “As to whether we need to create a new federal bureaucracy to enforce the rules, I would hope not.”
Of course Ms. Feinstein has never met a new federal bureaucracy she didn't like ... until now. If she gets her way and is able to prevent such a commission from being formed as well as squelching any reform on campaign-finance, I'd conclude that any ethics reform they do pass will be mostly window dressing and not serious reform. The system, as it exists, will mostly stay in place and continue to benefit those it is designed to benefit.
My guess? I think Feinstein will win. There are too many vested interests in the system as it exists today and the status quo remaining, for the most part, static. There will be window dressing reform, but I don't think substantial change will ever be made until such a thing as a separate "Congressional ethics committee" can actually come into existence. You cannot expect those who benefit materially from a system they've designed and have control over to change it significantly if doing so would cause them to possibly lose power.
So you want an AMATEUR Legislative Branch, versus a Professional Executive Branch?
Why not? Our legislative branch has been amateur hour for decades anyway. But Joe, I would LOVE to see that applied to the permanent bureaucracy. Too many of them don’t remember exactly what their place is.
Back to the original topic of the post, if the Dems do a weak job on this, they’ll lose power again. A savvy GOP (*SIGH, oh well*) could actually get slick and try to "out reform" the Dems on this issue.
nice to hear someone here acknowledge that public financing would make serious steps towards leveling the playing field between incumbents and challengers. As you say, Dianne Feinstein’s attitude towards such proposals is all you need to know about who would benefit and who wouldn’t.
I suppose that people who care about... something else.. more than about weakening the institutional incentives to corruption, still have a good reason not to be behind the proposal.