Monday, January 09, 2006

Real Lobbying Reforms? Don't Hold Your Breath

Now that Jack Abrahamoff is warming up his vocal chords, the majority party coincidentally decides it's time for some real lobbying reforms?

Well, I can't say I'm totally skeptical -- after all, I've had more than one foxhole conversion myself. But you have to admit, it's hard to have faith in a bunch of politicians who (necessarily) survive on the contributions of special interests (both parties, please) to bite the hands that feed them.

Nonetheless, it appears that some action is in the offing. I'd like to offer a few suggestions myself. Here are a few items being pushed out of the box:

1. Lobbyists must disclose their contacts with members of Congress or their staffs.

Why the lobbyists? Why not the members of Congress and their staffs? I suggest that both branches of Congress implement a public-access Outlook Calendar of sorts, on which every meeting between a member or their legislative staff must be disclosed at least 24 hours prior thereto. What good does it do to have these meetings disclosed by lobbyists weeks or months after legislative action has taken place? It wastes too much time looking back, and by that time, the damage has already been done.

2. Prohibition on gifts and travel.

This is only twenty-five years overdue. What member of Congress needs a gift? They're plenty popular with their constituents. Another brass clock is really just tacky. And this whole nonsense about the invaluable "fact finding mission" is silly. If it's important enough for facts to be found, then increase the Congressional travel budget and have members justify the need to their own internal Comptroller of Travel. Speaking at a "conference?" If it's important enough for your prestige or position, pay for it out of your campaign account. And is it absolutely necessary to stay in the presidential suite at The Boulders?

And please, don't tell me that you "can't be bought for the price of a meal." I've been there. I've said the same thing. It's not true. Men of abiding ethics and principles are not immune from establishing loyalties to persons or causes. These loyalties are formed outside of the building, and all the more so when the solicitor of the loyalty is picking up the tab. It's only natural. Don't tempt human nature.

3. Floor votes on pork barrel earmarks.

Wow. This is serious. Congressman Jeff Flake (heh) proposes to permit any single member to force a floor vote on any earmarked appropriation that comes to the floor. He says that it is too easy for a member to earmark special money at the behest of a lobbyist.

The problem here is that this would bring congressional action to a standstill. The minority party could simply bulk-challenge every amendment to an appropriation bill, and we'd be into November before a budget got passed. But is this a problem? Judge Gideon Tucker, a New York legislator in the 19th century, said that "no man's life, liberty or property is safe while the legislature is in session," and his words may be truer now than in 1866 (the words have variously been attributed to Mark Twain and others, but my old colleague Royall Switzler sets us straight, as he has always been wont to do).

Nonetheless, I think there is a more efficient method to discourage lobbyist-induced earmarking. That would be simply to require that any member offering a legislative amendment (appropriation or not) at the behest of a special interest must disclose, on the face of the amendment, the identity of the special interest at whose behest it is offered.

I can hear the squealing now.

The great challenge to meaningful reform is that the relationship between Congress and lobbyists has become deeply institutionalized and balkanized. It's like a metastasized cancer. In order to effect a cure, you have to dig so deep you risk the life of the patient.

But there is no greater cure than sunshine. Roaches scatter when the lights go on. And lobbyists are not the only roaches infesting the institution. There are Congressmen seeking to perpetuate or enhance their power, ambitious staffers seeking promotions, petty rivalries and scores to settle, and idealogues of every stripe for whom any means is justifies by their sanctimonious ends. It is a mean and dirty business that puts no premium on statesmanship or intellectual honesty.

And it is driven by money. Lobbyists' money. Labor union money. And it is money that will drive this "reform process" as well.

Watch whose ox gets gored in this, and tell me I'm wrong in the end.

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