This front-section story from the Washington Post about the so-called lobbying “reform” bill due for a House vote today perfectly captures, in the course of straight reporting, the problem with the House GOP: ALL they seem to do is think in terms of short-term politics, not in terms of long-term principles and not in terms of whether a policy is wise or ill-conceived, right or wrong, ethical or unethical. One key passage is this: Lawmakers acknowledge that the bill is more limited in its scope and impact than the provisions promised by congressional leaders immediately after Abramoff’s guilty plea to federal charges of bribery, conspiracy, tax evasion and mail fraud nearly four months ago. But they say they do not feel compelled to push more stringent measures partly because voters do not appear to be demanding them.
How about, instead, just for once, forgetting whether or not voters “appear to be demanding” something? How about just doing what is the wisest, most ethical, most honest thing, just for the sake of doing things right, regardless of the politics of it? (!!!!!!)
Specifically, “the measure would not restrict the gifts or meals provided by lobbyists.” Well, why [insert expletive-ing if you so desire in your own mind] not? It still befuddles me how elected officials can think that it is alright for paid lobbyists to give freebies to the lawmakers who have the lobbyists’ specific legislative business in front of them. Taxpayers provide pretty darn good salaries for lawmakers, so why can’t the solons pay for their own darn meals?
When I was a staffer on the Hill, even BEFORE the Republicans in 1995 (back when they actually were honest reformers) passed important new ethics rules that restricted foolishness such as abundant freebies (I’ve written on this subject a number of times, most notably here), there was only one lobbyist whom I EVER allowed to buy me even beers or a hamburger one a one-to-one basis (i.e., this doesn’t include mass receptions where staffers are basically anonymous, or group holiday dinners that were basically festive or celebratory) was somebody from my home town who was a friend even before I moved to Washington and even before I realized he was a lobbyist. In other words, there was no chance whatsoever of undue influence, because it was a pre-existing relationship.) And I certainly wasn’t rolling in dough at the time. If I could avoid the entrapment, why can’t these rich congressmen?
Frankly, in a perfect world (this is obviously not practical, but just used for illustrative purposes), the lawmakers would be occasionally buying beers for UNpaid lobbyists to thank the lobbyists for responsibly exercising their rights of speech and petition.
Now, for my usual disclaimer: This is in NO way to suggest that lobbying itself is a dishonorable business. Lobbying per se merely involves active participation in this sacred political process of ours, which is a good thing. The problem isn’t lobbyists; the problem is with lawmakers who act as if lobbyists owe them something of financial value.
Finally, as to the politics of the thing: The solons are so short-sighted that even their political calculations are off. Back in 1991 and 1992, if pollsters had asked the public about political corruption, it wouldn’t have ranked high on their list of stated concerns. Nor would the issue necessarily come up spontaneously in town meetings before the “House Bank scandal” arose. But make no mistake: Ethical concerns played a HUGE role in helping the GOP sweep to power in 1994. The public may not pay attention to the details of lobbying reform bills and ethics measures, but they DO develop, over time, impressions that can be quite hard to shake about how corrupt Congress is and whose fault it is, etc. And when the public is moderately angry, at least, anyway, those impressions can suddenly become important enough in their minds for them to vote accordingly. JUST BECAUSE CONSTITUENTS DON’T SAY THEY CARE DEEPLY about ethics doesn’t mean that they give Congress a free pass on the subject.
Ethics don’t matter, politically speaking…right up until the time when they suddenly matter more than anything else. GOP House members who are accustomed to be mollycoddled and waited up by lobbyists, and who think the public doesn’t care, could be in for a rude awakening.