One broad category of reforms involves making it harder for "lobbyists" - a term that includes everyone from the American Civil Liberties Union to the American Zoo and Aquarium Association - to influence congressmen. This includes that perennial panacea, campaign finance reform. Other ideas include banning free lunches for congressmen, cutting back on privately funded travel to swanky golf resorts and ski lodges, and restricting lobbying by ex-congressmen.
This is an updating of the refrain we've heard for 30 years from the "eat your spinach" good-government types.
Individually and at the margins, some of these proposals may make sense. For example, reformers are "considering" revoking the pensions of congressmen convicted of a felony committed in the course of their professional duties. (Revoking the pensions of representatives who, say, rob banks in their off hours is not on the table at this time.)
But at the end of the day, these reforms overlook the fact that we've been ratcheting up such rules for 30 years and yet every few years there's another "corruption crisis." Why? Because the government keeps swatting away flies rather than cleaning out the stable.
Lasting reform wouldn't come up with a new obstacle course for money to find its way into politics; it would reduce the incentive to spend money on politicians in the first place. Lobbyists would have no reason to pester and bribe a government that minded its own business. Microsoft and Wal-Mart, for example, spent virtually nothing on lobbying Washington until Washington began treating them like pinatas.
Republicans have an opportunity to reform politics by reforming government. If all they do is buy into the off-the-shelf rules that created this mess in the first place, they might postpone disaster past the 2006 elections. But you can be sure we'll be back at this same spot again.
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