By Freedom Newspapers
The problem with ethics legislation of the kind just passed by both houses of Congress (now awaiting President Bush’s signature, not an entirely foregone conclusion), is that it addresses the symptom rather than the disease.
It would hardly be tragic if the current bill became law, but it would be a mistake for Americans to conclude it had made the processes of legislating and regulating significantly more transparent or solved the underlying ethical malaise in the federal government.
The disease to which we refer is the fact that federal legislation, regulation and awards of contracts and grant money can have a significant effect on the health of American businesses, often for reasons having little to do with legitimate concerns like health or safety, including whether certain companies will prosper or falter.
The symptom of the disease is that lobbyists for various interests lavish money and other favors on legislators, regulators and staff members in a position to make or change those decisions, creating an appearance of widespread corruption in which it is not unjustified to assume that laws and regulations are for sale to the highest bidder.
The fact is, however, that as long as government is large and powerful enough that its decisions can be more powerful than consumer preferences in determining whether companies live, die or struggle on life support, those companies and interests will find ways to influence those decisions.
Indeed, one could argue that businesses would be derelict in their duty to stockholders if they didn’t take an active interest in the outcome of legislation that will affect their operations. The strategic use of money is an essential component of the process, and if ethics rules forbid the use of some channels, money will simply flow through other channels.
The current ethics legislation would prohibit lawmakers from accepting meals, travel and other entertainment from lobbyists and those who employ them. They would have to report contributions that lobbyists “bundle” for their campaigns from groups of donors. And it would require a modest amount of disclosure of earmarked pet projects that legislators slip into bills.
It would also extend from one year to two years the time former senators and executive branch members (but not House members or staffers) must wait before lobbying their former colleagues directly.
Sounds pretty tough, but it hardly closes the cash channels. For example, the ban on meals and gifts applies to lobbying purposes, but not to campaign fund-raising. So lobbyists could still pick up the check for meals and travel if they also handed the legislator a check for his campaign war chest.
There are also two dozen other exceptions. Legislators can be comped to widely attended events like charity golf tournaments, or taken to sporting events if they have some ceremonial role like throwing out the first pitch or waving the checkered flag.
The legislation aims to restrict lobbyists from paying for lavish parties at party national conventions to “honor” the lawmakers they are paid to influence. But it doesn’t restrict the host committees of those conventions from holding such parties, and the host committees of both parties are even now aggressively seeking multimillion dollar donations for such events, holding out the lure of access to influential legislative leaders.
As to earmarks, the legislation gives the Senate Majority Leader the power to determine whether an item is subject to earmark-disclosure rules.
Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, currently majority leader, has already established a reputation for manipulating Senate rules and procedures to avoid full disclosure on earmarks.
Unless a deeper ethic supportive of smaller government with less power to influence economic outcomes suddenly assumes an unexpected prominence, it will make little difference whether President Bush signs this latest symbolic gesture or not.