Hooked on Graft
Both Democrats & Republicans Finding it Hard to Kick the Habit
Republicans, eager to neutralize the Abramoff lobby scandal, rushed out with “reforms” providing a hole big enough to drive a truck through; fortunately, the Democratic plan plugs the gap. Sort of. Republicans called for specifically banning meals and privately paid travel for lawmakers.
Or did they? A lobbyist could still pick up a dinner tab if he also gives the congressman campaign cash at the same time. Much better, isn’t it?
“That’s a big hole if they don’t address campaign finance,” Joel Jankowsky, lobbying chief at Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, one of Washington’s top lobbying firms, told The Washington Post.
Republicans would limit gifts to lawmakers to a value of $20, which is a relatively drastic step. But Democrats improve on this by banning any gifts above the value of a Christmas card, as recommended a week ago by Spotlight on Congress.
But lawmakers will still be able to take lobby-paid exotic trips and in-town meals because neither party has yet defined a bribe as accepting something in exchange for a favor—such as legislation.
Political contributions remain unlimited if they come through so-called political action committees and “issue groups.” Reforms there raise thorny First Amendment problems. It is hard to limit spending by bad guys without affecting such valuable groups as the National Rifle Association.
“Political contributions are specifically exempted from the definition of what a gift is in House and Senate gift rules,” Kenneth Goss, an ethics lawyer at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, told the Post. “So, unless campaign finance laws are changed, if a lobbyist wants to sponsor an event at the MCI arena or on the slopes of Colorado, as long as it’s a fundraiser it would still be fine.”
Congressmen and staff are permitted to take these “fact-finding” trips paid for by private groups, including lobbyists and corporations, so long as they include some “official function.” So they must listen to a brief pitch before heading for the golf course or slopes. “Fact-finding” appears more efficient at exotic locations.
House speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and Senate Republican leaders, led by Rick Santorum (Pa.) and John McCain (Ariz.), said they would eliminate these privately funded “fact-finding” trips as part of a comprehensive ethics package they hope would begin moving through Congress in February.
But none of the lawmakers said they would eliminate lobby-paid trips to raise funds. Democrats have inserted an unrelated but important provision to their proposed reforms. They would require that conferences to reconcile differences in House and Senate versions of legislation be held in open session with Democrats participating. The Republican majority has taken to holding closed conferences with Democrats kept out. With all members of conference committees meeting in open session, all could propose and vote on amendments.
Legislation would have to be posted 24 hours before congressional consideration. If adopted, this change could have a significant impact on controlling pork. Billions of taxpayer dollars have been frivolously spent because “earmarks” mandating specific spending on local projects would be inserted, during conferences, into huge spending bills and passed by congressmen who were unaware of those contents.
The scandal that prompted the rush to reform is bipartisan but more heavily tilted toward Republicans because they control both houses and the White House. But Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has received at least $60,000 in Abramoff-connected funds and other Democrats have received tainted cash, too.
Already special-interest groups are fighting reforms even before proposals by both parties remain incomplete. The American Society of Association Executives called a press conference for Jan. 26 to announce opposition to banning all privately funded travel for lawmakers. “ASAE has taken a position against a provision that would ban all privately funded travel for members of Congress,” the announcement said.
Meanwhile, the gentlemen of Congress collect $162,000 per year as salary plus a staff, office and unlimited travel expenses. They recently raised their salaries. Again.
BORDER INCURSIONS DENOUNCED
Rep. Rick Renzi (R-Ariz.) reacted instantly to the revelation (AFP, Jan. 30, 2006) that Mexican military units were crossing the border into the United States to protect drug dealers and illegal aliens.
“Our borders are under attack by sophisticated organizations that have no qualms about firing on our Border Patrol units,” Renzi said in a letter to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. “As we get tougher and more committed, so do the organizations committed to smuggling death and terror across our borders.”
A State Department official said the department is “in touch with the Mexican government when incidents occur,” adding that “they are usually resolved at that time at the local level.”
Add Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio) to the endangered species list—he rejects pork in his own district. Most congressmen are opposed to pork in 49 states but not their own. In campaigning for the majority leader post given up by Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Tex.), Boehner’s staff cited criticism from his home-town newspaper, The Cincinnati Enquirer, for not snapping up tens of millions of dollars in pork for his district. Boehner is quietly lining up support by reminding members that he voted against all three of the pork-laden major highway bills that have passed during his 15 years in the House.
Supporters see Boehner as the right man because Republicans have been adrift for at least a year. Until the Bush years, Republicans were champions of small government, limited spending and balanced budgets. Now, not only are Republicans gluttons for pork, spending continues unabated, deficits are setting record highs—and it cannot all be blamed on the “war on terrorism.”
Congress did pass President Bush’s tax cuts, but, despite some evidence they fueled the economy, legislators have been unable to make them permanent. Unless Congress acts, those cuts will “sunset” over the next seven years.
(Issue #6, February 6, 2006)