Lobbying Reform

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.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. D.C. Russell says:

    I don’t have a problem with lobbying–it seems essential.

    But why are the people and the press so accepting of bribery? A bribe is a bribe. The fact that politician have defined the crime (not the word) of bribery in a fashion that lets them accept bribes, and then won’t enforce laws and rules about bribery, does not make bribery right, nor does it make politician who accept bribes any less despicable.

    Since the MSM routinely winks at this commonplace bribery, I think the blogosphere ought to look at the dictionary definition of “bribe,” start using the word, and start calling every bribe just what it is–a bribe.

    Merriam-Webster online dictionary:

    Bribe:

    Function: noun
    Etymology: Middle English, something stolen, from Middle French, bread given to a beggar
    1 : money or favor given or promised in order to influence the judgment or conduct of a person in a position of trust
    2 : something that serves to induce or influence

    Function: verb
    Inflected Form(s): bribed; brib·ing
    transitive senses : to induce or influence by or as if by bribery
    intransitive senses : to practice bribery

    Bribery:

    Function: noun
    Inflected Form(s): plural -er·ies
    : the act or practice of giving or taking a bribe

  2. DC Loser says:

    It’s interesting that the same behavior by civil servants would be considered unethical and illegal.

  3. Rob M says:

    Actually, the government can pay to fly a congressman back to the district.

    Is it a bribe if a congressman voted the same way he was intending? If the money given did not change the vote then it did not influence. If a union give money to a pro-union congressman who then votes pro-union, did the money have any effect?

  4. John Burgess says:

    Yeah, official travel between DC and home districts is pretty much covered by congress, not coming out of individual representatives’ pockets.

    But I find AARP as odious a lobbying group as any of the others. I don’t think they do as good a job promoting benefits of their members as they do promoting their own institutional longevity.

  5. The problem isn’t the lobbyists, it’s the officials being lobbied: a government that has assumed the right to reward or punish individual groups or individuals. It’s not suprising people would attempt to manipulate such a system so that they get the rewards and their adversaries get the punishments.

    Instead of trying to make it harder to petition the government, we should be trying to make it harder for the government to overreach its authority. If we did, bribery we decrease because public officials would no longer be able to offer anything worth being bribed for.

  6. McGehee says:

    I’m with Stormy. If we want to get the money out of politics, we need to get the government out of our wallets.

  7. Dave Schuler says:

    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.

    I can’t say I agree with you here. The nature of avarice (and one of the reasons it’s considered one of the Seven Deadly Sins) is that it’s not self-limiting. Raising congressional salaries would have no effect whatsoever on altering motivations to accept a bribe.

    There is just no way to get the money out of politics unless you get politics out of money.

    My own solution to the problems with professional lobbyists is to make it illegal. Notlobbying—that’s protected by the right to petition government. I mean making a living doing it. That’s well within the Congress’s powers to regulate commerce.

  8. Just Me says:

    I am not too sure about the pay raise. Having wealth or no wealth I don’t think is what leads to the ethical issues, I think it is the fact that congress turns a blind eye to the violations-a sort of congressional “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. I think the corruption is going to seep whether the congressman is indpendantly wealthy or not.

    I do think the pay should at least cover reasonable housing and living expenses in the District area-while leaving enough left over to maintina housing at home. If a study indicates that this isn’t the case for the majority of congress members then I would support an increase based on that, but if the reasoning for a pay raise is that it will lower temptation to corruption, I am not swallowing that pill.

    I absolutely agree that congress should be enforcing the ethics violations it has on the books, and they also need to do more than swat wrists, when they catch somebody in a violation.

  9. Mark says:

    But Dave,

    If you make it illegal to make a living from lobbying do you realize that the unemployment rate in DC jumps to around 20% overnight?

    Heh.

  10. lakjfdlj says:

    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

    What planet are you living on? In the last census the median gross rent in DC was reported to be $618/month. Median household income was $40,127.

    $162,100 annually places Members of Congress in the highest quintile in the District. This is plenty of money to maintain an apartment in the District and living arrangements at home.

  11. suek says:

    >>What planet are you living on? In the last census the median gross rent in DC was reported to be $618/month. Median household income was $40,127.

    $162,100 annually places Members of Congress in the highest quintile in the District. This is plenty of money to maintain an apartment in the District and living arrangements at home.>>

    I rather doubt that they live in DC proper – they all live in more “desireable” areas. How about we use one of those “excess” military bases and provide them housing? At the very least, maybe it would convince them to improve military housing…!

  12. Herb says:

    ” 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 t a democratic society and enshrined in the Constitution”

    Sure there are? Oh yeah they render a service, “to themselves”.

    “Critical to a democratis society”, Sure is? the only thing critical to all of them is to get, by hook or crook, legislation they seek and to hell woth the taxpaying public who pay the bills.

    Where in the hell is “representation of the people”? if the politician doesn’t see a fistfull of dollars in front of them, the the public to, can “go to hell”

    All lobbying should be banned and made a criminal offense. All lobbiest do is to put money in the politicians face and the crooked politician takes it, “in the name of the people” who put them, by voting for them, in office.

  13. DC Loser says:

    In the last census the median gross rent in DC was reported to be $618/month. Median household income was $40,127.

    Those figures are highly deceptive. DC proper includes vast sections of, shall we say, underprivileged and the housing prices reflect that situation. The realistic cost for a one bedroom apartment inside the beltway in a nice neighborhood is about $1000-1500. 1 BR condos in those areas go for about $300-400k.

  14. lakjfdlj says:

    Those figures are highly deceptive.

    The figures are not “highly deceptive”–they are entirely accurate. There are plenty of places in DC to get cheap housing. Yes, there are “underprivileged” areas; yes, you can find more affordable housing in those areas than in, say, Georgetown.

    I have lived in Ward 8 in Anacostia for years. My townhouse cost $90,000 in 1999–. It was in pretty good shape. Our crime rates are high, but they mostly attributed to disputes relating to drug peddling.

    I see nothing wrong with a Congressman having to “slum” it in a neighborhood like Anacostia. Their $160,000 will go quite far here.

  15. DC Loser says:

    Hell may freeze over before you see any congressman cross over the Anacostia River on his or her own, let alone live there.

  16. McGehee says:

    There are plenty of places in DC to get cheap housing.

    Indeed — if you don’t mind having happen to you what recently happened to Marion Barry in his own house.

    Allow me to introduce you to a concept known as the survival instinct.

  17. […] First Thomas Sowell and now James Joyner are arguing in favor of substantial pay raises for Congressmen: 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. […]

  18. James Joyner says:

    The idea that a Member of Congress should live in slum housing as a price of his service is rather ludicrous.

  19. lakjfdlj says:

    The idea that a Member of Congress should live in slum housing as a price of his service is rather ludicrous.

    No one is saying that a Member would live in slum housing. You had said that their current salary is “not a lot.” The point is $162,000 per annum is WAY MORE than enough to live temporarily in DC and maintain a home in their district (generally). The median household income in the US in 2004 was $44,000–in the district it was $46,000.

    These people make twice the combined median income for a US household and a DC household!

    You are not going to be forced to live in “slum housing” making that kind of scratch. For average Americans, $162,000 is filthy rich.

    These people are extraordinarily well-paid. To suggest otherwise is to be divorced from reality.

  20. LJD says:

    The idea that a Member of Congress should live in slum housing as a price of his service is rather ludicrous.

    I guess that depends on how they vote…

    No wonder Congress cannot acomplish anything (as a representatives of US). We can’t even agree on how much it costs to live in the DC area…

    Seriously though, the effect of lobbies is nothing more than a symptom. Federal government has reached into far more facets of our lives than it was ever intended to. You remove the government from some of these issues, and very soon the lobbies will have little to influence.

  21. Caerdroia says:

    A Piece of the Action

    There has been considerable debate, in the wake of the Abramoff scandal (actually, that’s bad metaphor: how about “in the first surging of the bow wave of the Abramoff scandal(s)”), on how to keep corruption out of politics, or at least minimize it….