The greatest single hypocrisy

Paul Jacob

4/16/2006 12:05:00 AM - 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.

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.