Paul Jacob

It's easy to find a $49.99 meal in our nation's capital. That may soon change.

The reason for the current price? Demand, of course. There's a lot of politicians in Washington, and a horde of their aides. They've all got to eat, and they all like a free lunch. And since restaurants aren't soup kitchens, somebody's got to pick up the tab. Fortunately for both restaurateur and ravenous pol, lobbyists like paying for politicians' lunches.

But by law, politicians have been limited in lunch, brunch, and dinner funding to $50 a meal. Hence the ubiquity of the $49.99 meal.

It's a free market. But those third-party payers certainly jack the system around.

Now you know why I dine at McDonalds.

The reason for the likely price change is not quite so simple. The Senate last month responded heroically to the Abramoff scandal not by beefing up enforcement of any existing laws, but by drafting up and voting on a new one, the Legislative Transparency and Accountability Act of 2006, S.2349. That masterpiece of legislation forbids senators, representatives, and their aides from accepting any lobbyist-paid meal.

Even at McDonalds.

I haven't read every word of S.2349, so I don't know if it allows lobbyists to spring for the tip.

Clarity is the alleged goal, and I'll grant them this: though the wording is suitably opaque, a certain clarity shines through. Take Section 103, where the Senate deals with "earmarks."

Now earmarking, as I've had occasion to remark before, is the modern method of distributing "pork." The term comes from how one marks a pig's ear, to determine whom it belongs to. Senators, in adding bits to legislation, mark those bits as their own by helping their own districts. Well, certain people within their own districts. You know, spending on indoor jungles, bike paths, and raisin research.

S.2349 amends the Standing Rules of the Senate with a new rule, a 44th. The rule defines what an earmark is — without once mentioning the words "pig" or "pork," mind you. Then it proclaims that "it shall not be in order to consider any" bill of any kind without

  1. listing the earmarks,
  2. identifying the members who proposed the earmarks, and
  3. explaining why the earmarks amount to the true business of the republic.

Oh, and this listing must be available on the Internet for at least 48 hours before the earmark's consideration.

Not exactly lightning bolts from heaven, but at least there should be fewer four-in-the-morning additions to bills that somehow make one senators' shirt-tail relatives rich beyond dreams of avarice.

Now they'll have to run the gauntlet of bloggers.

Paul Jacob

Paul Jacob is President of Citizens in Charge Foundation and Citizens in Charge. His daily Common Sense commentary appears on the Web and via e-mail.