Cure for unethical lobbyists? Not likely.

Posted: Jan 22, 2007 12:00 AM
Cure for unethical lobbyists? Not likely.

The dome of the Capitol building will be gleaming as the sun rises over Washington today. The new Democrat-controlled Congress has completed an historic week, completing legislation in the Senate and the House that will usher in a new era of openness, honesty and fairness in how the nation's business is conducted.

Are you laughing yet? At least grinning? You should be.

Yes, indeed our hard working legislators have gotten a lot of business done in these early days of the 110th Congress. The Senate has passed The Legislative Transparency and Accountability Act of 2007. Ethics reform _ or so called. And the House, under the leadership of our first woman Speaker, has passed the six bills targeted for its first 100 hours.

We should recall the conventional wisdom that when politicians arrive on the scene to save the day, hold onto your wallet.

Consider ethics reform.

If there is a defining theme to how the Congress approaches ethics, it would be "I'm OK; you're the problem." "You" in this case is us _ the citizens and taxpayers of this free country whom our members of Congress are sworn to serve. How is it that a senator or congressman becomes more ethical by passing a law that says that someone else, a private citizen, can't buy them lunch or take them on a trip?

Are we to understand that 535 United States senators and congressmen to whom we give oversight of a $3 trillion federal budget have told us they cannot be left to their own resources to determine if an offer to lunch or a trip is inappropriate?

Consider the fact that I wield a little power by the fact that I write a newspaper column that, in a good week, gets in front of millions of readers. This can be considered influence.

It is not unknown that someone with a particular ax to grind might ask me to write about it. They might even offer to buy me lunch in a fancy Washington restaurant to tell me the story. If it is a particularly big deal, they might even offer to fly me somewhere to show me what is going on.

However, for me, my own moral compass aside, my reputation and integrity are my most important assets. Why would I put these on the line for a lunch or a trip?

In fact, when it became clear that one particular columnist had been getting paid by lobbyist Jack Abramoff, whose shenanigans got this current ethics rage in Washington started, he was fired by the firm that syndicated his column and by the think tank with which he was affiliated.

Personal integrity and markets work in journalism. We don't have to have laws that say you can't buy a columnist lunch or take them on a trip. They can figure out for themselves what is useful and what is inappropriate.

If I can take personal responsibility for my professional ethical behavior, and frankly, so can every other professional doing business in this country, why can't our senators and congressmen?

Transparency and openness you say? The supply of information today is prodigious. The Internet, Palm Pilots, blogs, competing 24-hour cable news, satellite news. Sooner or later, everything will come to the light of day. It's how we found out about Abramoff.

But somehow politicians' answer to ethics is not to take more personal responsibility, but to limit the freedom that the rest of us have.

One related and germane part of this picture is campaign finance laws. This is another arena where politicians save us from ourselves and, by doing so, make us all worse off.

How do we fire a bad politician? Elections. But campaign finance laws, that limit the amount of money that candidates can raise, protect the incumbent rascals by limiting the amount of money available to challengers that want to expose them.

Can you imagine what we would have if we passed a law limiting the spending allowed on advertising soap? We would protect Procter and Gamble and make it almost impossible for a new little company with a great new soap to get on the market.

As we are currently observing in Iraq, it is impossible to have a free country without people who are prepared to act like responsible and civil adults. Is this too much to ask of our own senators and congressman?

As I write, the streets of Washington are filled with construction crews working on sparkling new buildings that will house well-financed lobbyists. Don't expect that this construction will halt as result of The Legislative and Transparency Act of 2007.