Jan Witold Baran, former general counsel of the Republican National Committee, offers both a defense of lobbying and some suggestions for reform.
Perhaps this scandal will eventually be called the Abramoff affair, but for now it is a lobbying scandal. If Shakespeare lived today, perhaps he would write, “First shoot all the lobbyists.” Yet in the midst of the current furor, reports do not mention that there are thousands of lobbyists in Washington who are honorable and honest people and who render a service that is both critical to a democratic society and enshrined in our Constitution.
There is irony here. The same constitutional provision that ensures the press may proclaim a lobbyist’s guilty plea also protects the act of lobbying. The First Amendment is well-known for guaranteeing freedom of speech, freedom of press, freedom of assembly and freedom of religion. Often overlooked in its litany of fundamental civil liberties is the right “to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” It is this distinct clause that prevents Congress and the president from enacting a law that bans lobbying. It is a right that should not be taken lightly and that should not be eroded by the fraudulent acts of a single lobbyist.
The framers of the Constitution recognized that citizens must be free to make appeals to those who govern and who make policies, laws and regulations that affect the citizenry. Obviously, most citizens are not physically located at the seat of government, may not know how government works, and are busy doing things other than lobbying. For those reasons, when they need help in making their petitions, they retain representatives who can more effectively seek redress on their behalf. In other words, ordinary folks need representatives to talk to their representatives.
While officials may prefer to legislate without being importuned by those affected or by their representatives, that is not the way laws should be made in an open democratic society. The founders sought to ensure the public interest by promoting pluralism and protecting the participation of all. How then can it be surprising that there are now more than 27,000 registered lobbyists petitioning on behalf of business, labor, the environment, education, abortion rights, the elderly, the poor, ethnic groups and more?
While I doubt Congress had the AARP and PhRMA in mind when they wrote the 1st Amendment, Baran’s basic point is correct. We usually think of “lobbyists” as people trying to get special favors for the powerful through massive donations to congressmen. While there is quite a bit of that, most “special interest groups” are comprised of ordinary citizens banded together in order to get their voices heard.
To prevent future Abramoff’s, Baran suggests some reasonable measures:
Enforce current House and Senate ethics rules. After reading about Abramoff’s wining, dining and entertaining, many Americans would be surprised to learn that both the House and the Senate have rules that generally limit gifts, including meals, to $49.99. However, neither congressional offices nor the ethics committees actually enforce those rules, thus making a mockery of them. Congressional officials, particularly staff, should be required to certify annually that they have not received improper gifts and such certifications should be subject to laws that make false statements a crime.
Tighten up those rules. There has been much attention paid to the expensive foreign trips taken by some officials at private expense. In Congress, but not in the executive branch, officials may accept luxurious travel, accommodations and meals anywhere in the world as long the trip has some official purpose, such as giving a speech or participating in a conference. This practice must be modified or eliminated. If a trip is justified and necessary for official reasons, then it should be modest and financed by the government. If some trips continue to be privately financed, there should be limits and officials must make prompt, complete and public disclosure, preferably on a government Web site.
Require lobbyists to itemize gifts and entertainment on lobbying reports. The current LDA requires the reporting of the total amount of money spent by lobbyists, but no itemization of expenses. Itemizing gifts and entertainment over, let’s say, $20 would highlight which government officials accept such blandishments and whether they are adhering to their own ethics rules. Lobbyists and their clients are not subject to the congressional ethics rules but are subject to the LDA and other statutes that prohibit bribes and gratuities.
Promote an ethical culture. The character and leadership of government officials are the most important ingredients in setting examples and demanding ethical behavior. There are, however, additional steps. Any manager working at a major corporation will tell you that he or she must participate in mandatory educational compliance programs. Workers are required to know what the rules are, what the company policies are and to demonstrate that they know. No less should be expected of government officials. Congress needs to implement a mandatory annual compliance education program and no one should receive a paycheck unless he or she has completed the program.
To those, I would add Significantly raises congressional salaries. While many Members are independently wealthy through inheritance or prior success in the business world, others rely exclusively on their salary. While $162,100 a year is good money, it’s not a lot when you consider the need to maintain a home in their state or District, one near Capitol Hill, and the expense of flying back and forth every weekend. Free meals and vacations are pretty good perk.
See Thomas Sowell’s recent column for other reasons why a pay hike might be a good idea.