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, says “Entertainment 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.