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The Daily Whim

The Daily Whim

Wed. Jan 11, 2006

Lowering Congress' Allowance

There’s lots of talk this week about lobby reform, as a result of the scandal surrounding Jack “King of K Street” Abramoff, and the as yet unknown number of public servants on Capitol Hill. They’re pointing fingers at “The Other Guys,” quickly shovelling the tainted money to charities, and preparing to put on a show of kicking themselves in the ass, in hopes that we won’t.

But I’d like to talk about real reform. The kind We The People need. The kind that won’t be happening.

And George Will deftly tells us why it won’t be happening: “Before evolution produced creatures of our perfection, there was a three-ton dinosaur, the stegosaurus, so neurologically sluggish that when its tail was injured, significant time elapsed before news of the trauma meandered up its long spine to its walnut-size brain. This primitive beast, not the dignified elephant, should be the symbol of House Republicans.

And if eternal conservative stalwart George Will isn’t enough, the eternally conservative Wall Street Journal piled on big time:

This week’s plea agreement by “super-lobbyist” Jack Abramoff has Republicans either rushing to return his campaign contributions in an act of cosmetic distancing, accuse Democrats of being equally corrupt, or embrace some new “lobbying reform” that would further insulate Members of Congress from political accountability.

Here’s a better strategy: Banish the Abramoff crowd from polite Republican society, and start remembering why you were elected in the first place.

What’s notable so far about this scandal is the wretchedness of the excess on display, as well as the fact that it involves self-styled “conservatives,” who claimed to want to clean up Washington instead of cleaning up themselves. That some Republicans are just as corruptible as some Democrats won’t surprise students of human nature. But it is an insult to the conservative voters who elected this class of Republicans and expected better.

One danger now is that, rather than change their own behavior, Republicans will think they can hide behind the political cover of “lobbying reform.” While this has various guises, most proposals amount to putting further restrictions not on Congress but on “the right of the people … to petition the government,” as the Constitution puts it explicitly.

Cleaning House: Banish the Abramoff Republicans

The Wall Street Journal says “Republicans will think they can hide behind the political cover of ‘lobbying reform’,” and as if on cue…

With Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) formally removed from congressional leadership, House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) took the next step yesterday in Republican efforts to distance the party from a growing corruption scandal, saying the House will move soon to tighten the rules governing lobbyists’ access to lawmakers.

“Over the past several months, I have spoken with many members about the need for such reforms … Now is the time for action,” Hastert said in a statement.

Hastert Moves to Tighten Rules on Lobbyists

Yes, “Now is the time for action,” now that people have been indicted and/or plead guilty. Please close the barn door to make sure that horse doesn’t get back in there!

Yes, we surely will get some quick-mix faux reform now, because everybody’s on the bandwagon…

The one sure bet in all this is that lobbying reform laws are going to pass. Even before Mr. Abramoff, the public thought the influence-buying game was sleazy. Now, well, who would oppose reform? Mr. McCain, who faced years of opposition to campaign finance reform, knows this one will be much easier. “I don’t think it would offend very many people except those in the lobbying community,” he told me in November.

Senator McCain was right; just look at who is already on the reform bandwagon. The first senator to sign on as a co-sponsor to Mr. McCain’s bill was none other than Conrad Burns, Republican of Montana, who is also the senator most frequently linked to the Abramoff matter. When it comes to lobbying in this post-Abramoff world, everyone’s a reformer — and that could be a problem.

New York Times: Money Always Finds a Way

I don’t see how anyone can believe this Congress will initiate any meaningful reform because of this.

George Will explains part of the reason why: “A surgical reform would be congressional term limits, which would end careerism, thereby changing the incentives for entering politics and for becoming, when in office, an enabler of rent-seekers in exchange for their help in retaining office forever. The movement for limits — a Madisonian reform to alter the dynamic of interestedness that inevitably animates politics — was surging until four months after Republicans took control of the House. In May 1995 the Supreme Court ruled 5 to 4 that congressional terms could not be limited by states’ statutes. Hence a constitutional amendment is necessary. Hence Congress must initiate limits on itself. That will never happen.

Without term limits, we’ll be left batting around a number of proposals, many of which sound good, but again, will never happen:

The less campaign lucre there is, the better government will be. In an earlier column I recommended that registered lobbyists be barred from raising money for politicians — at least during congressional sessions — and I stand by that suggestion.

Even lobbyists are offering drastic proposals. One of Washington’s best-regarded lobbyists, Robert E. Juliano, has been talking up public financing of elections as a way to remove the taint that money in politics has brought. In my view that’s a noble but impractical idea. Taxpayers won’t long tolerate paying for politicians’ campaigns with their hard-earned dollars.

In the 2004 elections alone, federal candidates raised and spent a whopping $2.42 billion, according to PoliticalMoneyLine.com, a huge jump from the 2000 elections.

Jeffrey H. Birnbaum: Change Is Coming: The Question Is Just How Much

I don’t believe there is any small or short term fix for this. Not that that’s not what we’ll get. It’s easy to blame this all on dirty lobbyists and corrupt Congresspeople, but we also have to be careful we maintain the Constitutional right to petition Congress. In effect, to lobby.

This is a systemic problem, so I’m not even sure term limits would eliminate some of the issues. Just change the names, and the loopholes by which the game is played.

If Reid Were King … here’s what I’d propose (and let there be no doubt that I know this is a list of things that will never happen).

I think in coordination with term limits you have to restructure the pay scale of Congress. First off, you get twelve years. It can be two Senate terms, or six House terms, or three House terms followed by one Senate term. Because if you don’t spend the majority of your working career “among the people,” facing the same issues they do, you can’t effectively represent them.

As for pay, as much as we complain when Congress gives themselves a raise, the truth is that higher pay attracts a higher caliber of talent. So let’s give them incentive. Some double edged incentive.

I think you’ve got to somehow tie salary to campaign funding. In 2004, $2.42 Billion was spent on campaigns for federal office. Another $2 Billion per year is spent on lobbying the victors. Ross Perot’s phrase “giant flushing sound” comes to mind.

So let’s pay Senators $2 million per year, and Representatives $1 million per year. That’s $635 million, a bargain compared to the earmarks placed on last year’s highway bill by the current Congress.

Now, the catch. Once they’ve secured their party nomination, Senators and Representatives must fund their campaign from their salary. The max allowed would be 50% of salary, but if they can spend less than that and still get re-elected, they get to keep it!

Theoretically, an incumbent who’s done such a good job they face little competition might be able run a shoe string campaign for one hundred to two hundred grand, and pocket the difference. Legally.

Of course, we taxpayers would have to kick in another $320 million or so to fund their challengers. This would only fund the general campaign, not the party primaries. For that, you allow candidates to raise up to $2,000 per donation. Except you can only raise it from individuals who live in your district, or companies that are headquartered there.

No outside money. No fund raising in DC. All district based. If an incumbent is doing a poor job, it ought to be a simple matter for a challenger to raise money within the district. And you’d have to cap spending during the primaries, too, so that an incumbent wouldn’t have an undue advantage.

Granted, that’s an awfully simplified plan, and there would be complexities I’m sure I haven’t considered. But it’s the kind of radical change that’s needed.

Other independent changes that might make a difference? If you’re in Congress, no comfy and quick post gig lobbying. Currently members of Congress have to wait one year before they can become a lobbyist. I say make it six years for members and staff.

Earmarks are a blight on the budget. Why can’t there be some standard that the rider attached must have some at least cursory relevance to the bill to which it is attached? I’m sick of hearing about riders placed on a bill that everyone knows must be passed, and the ugly pork gets a free ride because no one has the balls to stand up against it once attached.

I think we should also force our Congress to do their business during the light of day. This past Congress became infamous for pushing bills out at midnight, allowing two or three hours for members to digest hundreds of pages in the bill, and then forcing a vote through at 3am.

If you can’t allow a reasonable amount of time between bill issuance and the vote, and if you have to do it while most Americans sleep, you look like a shifty bandit trying to pull another one over on us.

We see you.

But none of this will happen. As Dan Danner, senior vice president of the National Federation of Independent Business, saysEntertainment may slow for a while but then people will figure out new ways to accomplish the same things and it will likely be business as usual for a few years … until the next scandal.

Watch what happens next. Congress will find a way to use one piece of wool to both cover their asses and pull over our eyes.


Peanut Gallery

1  Reid wrote:

One point I forgot to add to the above about actual lobby reform: the place lobbying occurs. It used to be, um, “the the lobby,� catching someone as they passed. Though we don’t need to go that far, going back towards those roots would help.

Why can’t we limit all lobbying efforts to two places; the Congressperson’s home district, and Capitol Hill itself?

No golf trips to the Caribbean. No five star restaurants. Your right to petition Congress doesn’t include that.

2  emcee fleshy wrote:

Another idea –

No Limits. No limits on contributions, no limits on spending.

Seems like the recent round of lobbying not only correlates with Tom Delay’s “K Street Project” but also with the much better-intentioned McCain-Feingold act.

McCain-Feingold made it harder for an individual to influence campaigns. Thus, for the representative, selling out to a single individual became less lucrative. Now, in order to get the same result, the reps need to sell out to much larger numbers of interests, or larger interests that can bring many individuals together.*

Not a pretty bargain, but wouldn’t it be better to have your congressperson owned by just one special interest, rather than all of them?

.

*Helpful analogy – If all of the crack on the street was suddenly one-fifth as strong, what would happen to the crack market? exactly.

3  Walt wrote:

“Theoretically, an incumbent who’s done such a good job they face little competition might be able run a shoe string campaign for one hundred to two hundred grand, and pocket the difference. Legally.”

No change here Reid. This is already the reality. I think term limits are the only solution. It was needed for the presidency, and we need it for Congress now. I like your numbers. (12 yrs) We the People need to change too. The million man or the million mom march should be made to look small by comparison to the march that should take place in DC. Politics has been make to look dirty, foolish, stupid, and not cool. so as to discourage the average citizen from adding their input. And for those foolish enough to log onto the Congressional website, only gibberish. Unfortunatly our country is heading down the outhouse hole. You don’t really realize or miss what you have until it’s gone.

4  Reid wrote:

Emcee: “No Limits. No limits on contributions, no limits on spending.

I’ll admit, your plan is a lot more likely to get passed than mine. But I’m still going with a tougher love. No soft money. At all. No money from lobbyists. At all. No golf trips or golden junkets. Hard $2,000 max contributions from individual consitituents and companies from within their home district.

Literally, no outside money. From anyone.

As for lobbying, for example, Coca-Cola, Inc, headquartered in Atlanta (Ga. District 4), could lobby Rep. John Lewis, Sen. Saxby Chambliss, and Sen. Johnny Isakson. They could do it in Congress’ offices on Capitol Hill, or within their home district.

And that’s it.

Ideally, candidates would be beholden to the taxpayer system that funded their campaign, and the consitutuents within their district (both individual and business).

And that’s it.

To continue your crackhead metaphor, imagine if a crackhead woke up one day to find that four of the five drug gangs that had been fighting over the turf on which he lived had been rousted and run off by the cops. The only dealer left is Ol’ Sparky, who’s been the neighborhood dealer for ages. He hasn’t got the Big Rocks like Dealer Jack had, but he’s got enough to get by.

And you’d better figure out how to get by. Or get off. If crack is your game.

Walt: “Unfortunatly our country is heading down the outhouse hole. You don’t really realize or miss what you have until it’s gone.

Indeed. Back in elementary school, who wanted to learn about boring checks and balances? Today, I’d like to fight to get them back.

5  emcee fleshy wrote:

He hasn’t got the Big Rocks like Dealer Jack had, but he’s got enough to get by.

I look at that situation and see demand for an aspiring young businessman. Demand that will quickly be filled. (probably filled by the cops themselves.)

Lets take the rule you’ve set forth: A corporation can only lobby in its primary place of business. —- There are thirteen House districts in Georgia. How long does it take to rent thirteen offices and file thirteen corporate charter applications? It’s about 3:15 PM, If I started now I’d have to work late. At least until 5:45.

I know that you threw that out as an example, and it wasn’t intended for specific nitpicking, so I’m only nitpicking as an example. Problem is, I haven’t heard any other proposals that I couldn’t get somebody around. (Note: in my cases, I often have to prove that a corporation is just shams to get around some other law. Yes, I do it all the time, but its hard as hell and takes forever. The FEC would have to have about 10,000 of me working full time to police this rule. Hence the current rule – Corporations can’t give any money to federal campaigns.)

My problem is that our political reforms have usually had exactly opposite of the effect they intended. Before, the big guy had an advantage in that he could $10 to the little guy’s $1. But now that the limit is $2, the big guy’s solution is to arrange for a lot of people (wives, employees, golf buddies, friends of lobbyists) to give $2 until they get to, or usually well beyond, their original $10.

Unintended result 1 – The special interests now have even bigger advantage than they used to, because, while they had a little more money than the little guy, they have far more organizational power to arrange for large numbers of contributions than the little guy does.

Unintended result 2 – These aggregated contributions keep the special interest influence below the radar. If the Reps got the same money from one or two sources, this story would have broken long, long ago, and the corruption therefore wouldn’t have gotten nearly as pervasive.

As you know, I’m not an ideological libertarian by any stretch of the imagination. But all of the political reforms that we’ve tried so far (except term-limits) seem to have been counterproductive. I was all for McCain Feingold. But I’ve changed my mind.

None of this is going to happen, because 95% of America doesn’t know what this issue is even about or care about it. I follow politics, and I still have no idea what this guy did, what he has to do with Indian reservations, or why it surprises anyone that politicians are bribed by special interests.

I am disappointed in you, however, for turning it into a silly party-line sort of thing through your selective quoting and coverage.

Lobbying is part of the corruption inherent in the system. Inherent means that no matter what you do to the system, the corruption will return because the system itself causes the corruption no matter what controls you put in place. No changs you make, no laws, and for God’s lake, Walt, no marches are going to change anything. America doesn’t give a crud about marchers or protestors any longer. Everyone knows that the people marching are not “average Americans’ and cares not what they have to say.

Corruption in government cannot be limited or stopped. It can only be forced to reroute temporarily.

Instead of focusing on that which will never happen, why not instead push for the smallest possibly government? Government is, after all, inherently evil – a necessary evil – but evil nonetheless. Everything government tries to do, other than military, fire protection, and police work, pretty much pukes out and ends up being some useless bureaucracy which accomplishes nothing but requiring more and more tax dollars to run it. Limiting government does mankind all sorts of favors.

Small government = freedom. Big government just results in bigger scandals and bigger corruption.

7  Reid wrote:

Emcee: “My problem is that our political reforms have usually had exactly opposite of the effect they intended.

Yes, and it also seems that what ends up getting passed places more limits on those petitioning Congress than on Congress itself.

Since I’ve been singing these Pollyanna tunes here, I ought to make it clear … I think that’s what we’re going to get again; a solution that solves nothing, and opens the potential for worse. A shifting of loopholes, and a fresh coat of cheap paint.

Having said that…

24FC: “I am disappointed in you, however, for turning it into a silly party-line sort of thing through your selective quoting and coverage.

Pray tell, which party do you believe I am towing the line for? I quoted George Will, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, a New York Times article that seems to agree with your thrust (Money will always find a way) and a columnist whose column is devoted to “the intersection of government and business”.

That’s selective quoting? Looks like a selection of the top mainstream media to me. Did I not include links for you to read the source in its entirety? Would you prefer I violate fair use and quote each entire article? Or may I choose the point that I’d like to emphasize?

Further, which party would you say it would be best to hold accountable for the excesses in Congress over, oh, say, the past five years? Maybe the one in control of both Houses of it?

You say that qualifies as a “silly party line sort of thing,” but I say that’s holding those in control accountable. Just as happened to the Democrats in 1994. The situations are surprisingly similar, with only the names and parties changed. No one was wailing on the Republicans back then, they were blaming the party in control.

And then they lost control.

Lobbying is part of the corruption inherent in the system.

Yes. That’s why I said “This is a systemic problem.”

Instead of focusing on that which will never happen, why not instead push for the smallest possibly government?

First of all, sometimes it’s good to talk about real solutions, as a contrast to what Congress is actually going to do.

Secondly, who would you suggest I vote for? Deficit spenders who’ve grown non-defense spending by 25% in the past five years? Those who sold us a prescription drug plan by telling us it would cost 40% less than it’s turning out to cost? Or Democrats who tell you up front they like big government?

Anyone who tells you they want to get a job so they can make the company smaller and decrease their own personal power … is lying.

8  DanS wrote:

Thoughtful exchange…;

It’s my experience that foundational law (you know, the Constitution) is but a springboard to a switchboard of what one and all can get away with.

A Chicago analogy: after the blizzard of 67, Mayor Richard J. Daley told Chicagoans to grab a shovel and help would come; after the blizzard of 79, Mayor Michael Bilandic told the same Chicagoans to fill a glass of chardonnay and sit by the fireplace & wait for the City to clear the roads. Guess which Mayor got overwhelmingly re-elected?

The confirmation came in 99 when Richard M. Daley (the Son) once again urged Chicagoans to do what they could and that City Gov’t would come to help as they the Citizens demonstrated exactly what help was required. A week later he was overwhelmingly re-elected.

There are many related-morals to this anecdote; what resonates most for me is sweat-equity by the Citizenry directing the response of Gov’t.

In the absence of such equity, we get the U.S. Congress that thinks we don’t give a shit one way or the other what ‘they’ do. Hence, the fire-sale that is America today.

9  emcee fleshy wrote:

Everything government tries to do, other than military, fire protection, and police work, pretty much pukes out and ends up being some useless bureaucracy

“other than military, fire protection, and police work”??!

Admittedly, I don’t have any real expereince with firefighters. But I do know that the police force and the military puke out more useless bureaucracy than one could reasonably imagine. The DMV is a well-oiled machine by comparison.

Feel free to ask any officer, sergeant or petty officer how he feels about useless bureaucracy in his own service or department. But make sure you’re someplace comfortable first, since you’ll be there for a while.

10  Reid wrote:

Feel free to ask any officer, sergeant or petty officer how he feels about useless bureaucracy in his own service or department. But make sure you’re someplace comfortable first, since you’ll be there for a while.

Paging Pablo.

11  24FightingChickens wrote:

“Secondly, who would you suggest I vote for? Deficit spenders who’ve grown non-defense spending by 25% in the past five years? Those who sold us a prescription drug plan by telling us it would cost 40% less than it’s turning out to cost? Or Democrats who tell you up front they like big government?�

Unfortunately, for smaller government today, we have no choice. You can vote Libertarian. That’s your only choice. I have voted Libertarian many times, and see? It solved everything. :-)

Personally, I will continue to vote Republican, because regardless of the problems they have, I will not vote for a party that is populated by people whom I believe want to tax me so that they can make others their dependents, practice discrimination, and in general are traitors to their country catering to Euro-socialist interests. I voted against Kerry regardless of my disdain for Bush because Kerry was a gutless coward who lied to receive purple hearts and then lied about his experience in Vietnam. National Security trumps my preferences about the size of government.

The Libertarians would be my preference if they would get a little more hawkish on war and find a viable personality to run for president.

“But I do know that the police force and the military puke out more useless bureaucracy�

Irrelevant. The government blows people up and arrests criminals good regardless of the bloat. Everything else the government tries to do, they only create the bloat and never accomplish anything of merit.

12  emcee fleshy wrote:

if it’s irrelevant, why did you bring it up?

13  Reid wrote:

24FC: “The Libertarians would be my preference if they would get a little more hawkish on war and find a viable personality to run for president.

The Libertarians. Libertarian thought is quite appealling, it all seems so sensible and logical. Sort of like pacificism. It sounds great. One Big Harmony. But, like pacificism (or even communism), when placed in the laboratory we call The Real World, it’s somewhere between very wobbly and completely non-functional.

But, you’re right, for starters you can narrow the Libertarian problem down to two big issues they need to solve; isolationism is not a viable policy in our current world, nor is it going to be successfully sold to the American public, and their recent candidates have had a case of Robertsonitis at times. To put it mildly.

But Great Googly-Moogly, people, could the writing on the wall be any bigger? Democrats and Republicans are not the solution. They are the majority of the problem. There’s got to be a third way, sooner or later.

emcee: “if it’s irrelevant, why did you bring it up?

You have much to learn about the contrarianism of 24FC, Grasshopper.

14  emcee fleshy wrote:

[works great in theory, but in the real world. . . ]

Back home, we had a word for theories like that. We referred to them as “wrong.”

15  Paul wrote:

Everything is a double-edged sword. Our inept, clueless, lazy, and incompetant bureaucracy may be the source of many troubles, but those same qualities also mean that it’s easy to scam and evade. Truly, if our bureaucracy operated as efficiently as people wanted it to, we’d be living in a Tyranny of unrivalled misery.

I personally like the fact that I can easily use the government’s own weaknesses against it for personal advantage (not that I do anything like that, but it’s nice to know that I can), although they do make it harder every year. Still, our wonderful and wacky Federal/State set-up makes it easy to get away with almost anything short of murder.

16  emcee fleshy wrote:

“that government is best which governs worst.”

Not quite what Jefferson said, but I kind of like it. (come to think of it, it kind of makes me proud to be a Democrat!)

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