Paul Jacob

Whatever else we may say, the senators appear to be thinking "systemically." They know they have incentives, and incentives can be both subtle and peculiar.

But just how subtle and how peculiar?

Senator Trent Lott stated that he was "a little offended at the whole concept that you can be bought by a meal."

He knows that he's not that cheap.

He also argued, perceptively, that prohibiting a meal wasn't quite in the spirit of the "clarity" goal of the new law. "I think we are creating some unintended problems. The Rules Committee bill says that you must disclose the cost of such meals that you go to 15 days after you share the meal. To me, that is better. Are we going to stop eating?"

Lott had several objections to the meal provision (or should that be "prohibition of provision"?), and even brought up how much he liked to eat at McDonalds. He asked whether a McDonalds meal bought by a friend who owns a McDonalds franchise back in his home state would be prohibited. The answer? If you dine out, you're going to have to pick up the tab. You can dine with anyone, Senator, just pay your share.

Lott sees little wrong with the Senate's SOP. And it does seem strange that concern with Abramoff-level corruption has descended to a struggle over who pays the restaurant bill.

These new rules aren't law. As readers may remember from educational film strips about how bills become laws, this one has a ways to go. Even the president has something to say about it.

So it was perhaps with this fact in mind that another hero of our times, Senator Inhofe, added his two cents' worth. With the aid of Mr. Lott's co-heroics, he added a provision that has become Section 113. Basically, the provision says that legislators who vote against a cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) increase for legislators shall not be paid said COLA increase, when said increase become law.

Is Inhofe being ironic?

As the nation reels from scandal after scandal, the double-dealing that apparently offends Inhofe is closer to the heart of his chamber: "I have always felt that the greatest single hypocrisy every year is when Members come up and vote to exempt Members of Congress from a cost-of-living increase. The hypocrisy comes in when all the press releases hit the home State and they talk about how great this is, saying they are great reformers and then, of course, it is defeated and they end up taking the increase anyway."

Greatest single hypocrisy ever? Inhofe is so "inside" that he can't see out. Should Congress really fiddle with the all-or-nothing nature of normal democracy just to discourage "Members" from voting against their own COLA increases? Will this inspired innovation became the "greatest single" reform?

And isn't it strange that Inhofe sees the appealing for votes and popularity from one's constituents as the corrupting element in the Senate?

It's always instructive to learn how politicians think.

Corruption is vast because power is nearly unlimited. Politicians have weaseled their way around the Constitution's limits, and so of course corruption is endemic. Tacitus warned of this years ago: the more the laws, the more corrupt the state. Instead of limiting their own power, and thus their temptation, our solons add some reporting requirements, stick it to dissenters on COLA increases, and prohibit meal purchasing by registered lobbyists.

Even if this law does curb some corruption, its very existence — and the pettiness of its targets — indicates just how corrupt the process is.

And that truth is worth a $49.99 meal. Big Macs all around.

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.