‘Reforms’ will not assuage anger at Congress
By Jim Thurber
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2007
Published: August 7 2007 19:11 | Last updated: August 7 2007 19:11
Is Washington going to get better? Congress passed the long-awaited Honest Leadership and Open Government Act of 2007 last week. Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader, called the bill the “most significant change in lobbying ethics in the history of the country”, and reformers say they like it.
However, John Boehner, the House minority leader, called it “a glass of warm milk” and asserted that: “it doesn’t do anything”. President George W. Bush has threatened to veto the bill. Is this the most important ethics reform in the history of Congress, or so insignificant that it should be vetoed lest it become a substitute for meaningful reform? It is neither.
The bill purports to address some of the anger and distrust expressed last year by US voters, 40 per cent of whom said that corruption and lobbying were extremely important issues that motivated them to vote (compared with 36 per cent who cited Iraq). The ethics and lobbying legislation was essential for the Democrats, who campaigned on ending the “culture of corruption” and who had promised to “drain the swamp” in Washington.
The crucial provisions promise internet disclosure of lobbyist fundraising for lawmakers. Lobbyists must report their activities electronically every three months. The measure imposes new restrictions on members and staff accepting gifts, meals and discounted travel on private aircraft paid for by lobbyists.
Names of sponsors and recipients of congressional pet projects, called “earmarks”, are to be made public at least 48 hours before approval of appropriations and tax laws, both sources of billions of dollars of secret special-interest spending and tax breaks. The act extends the “cooling-off period” before senators are eligible to join a lobbying firm from one to two years. Former House members would have to wait one year. Senators and House members are required to disclose any job negotiations they engage in while serving in Congress and members are forbidden from attempting to influence hiring decisions among lobbying firms. The reform also bans secret “holds”, which often kill legislation in the Senate.
These are important provisions and may even lead to some change in the way decisions are made in Washington. But we already see unintended consequences, with the growth of earmarks, exemptions to the use of subsidised corporate jet travel, new methods of collecting and spending campaign funds and clever positioning to avoid being called a lobbyist.
Moreover, Congress defeated a proposal to have its ethics and lobbying rules enforced by an outside group (the Office of Public Integrity) rather than the timid House and Senate ethics committees. It has been reluctant to let others enforce existing rules, let alone new ones, for fear of breaking the “iron law of reciprocity” practised with such excellence on the Hill and with lobbyists.
Will these reforms be appreciated by the American electorate? I think not. As of late last month, Americans gave Congress a near-record low approval rating of 22.6 per cent (down from 33 per cent in January), well below Mr Bush’s job performance rating.
There is little in this legislation that might have prevented the actions of lobbyist Jack Abramoff, representatives “Duke” Cunningham (bribes for earmarks) and Bob Ney (corruption), who are all in jail, and that of Mark Foley and 14 other members of Congress who were under an ethical cloud in November 2006, when the congressional elections were held. Nor is there much to allay the public anger about Congress in general and the way members waltz with lobbyists.
Public anger about corruption in Congress goes well beyond what is addressed in this bill. It has to do with good government. The American public no longer tolerates the absence of government owing to deadlock, extreme partisanship and lack of civility and comity in Congress. The 2006 congressional election was as much a plea for just and effective government as it was a plea for ethics reform. The public still perceives Washington as a place where money buys political power.
The American people want the Congress and the president to do their jobs, to work together to solve the most important problems facing America. Washington has become more dysfunctional through partisanship, institutional gridlock and the entrenchment of powerful special interests since the 2006 election and these “reforms” do little to change that.
The writer is director of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University