Bad-Mouthing Aside, Ethics Law Is a Step Forward

Posted January 16, 2008 at 3:15pm

Perhaps the best test for measuring the strength of a piece of reform legislation is to identify those who benefit from the status quo and see if they attempt to spread misinformation about it and then denigrate it.

That is exactly what is happening now with the new ethics and lobbying reform measure, the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act. The law, with its new restrictions on lobbyists’ gifts and travel and increased disclosure requirements, is a significant improvement. Signed into law this past fall, the act already is being undermined by the House ethics committee, which is trying its best to weaken the bill in its interpretations, and is being attacked by defenders of the status quo. And now these attacks have seeped into the presidential race.

The misinformation campaign began almost immediately upon enactment of this surprisingly strong measure. The anonymous quotes from lobbyists who “asked not to be identified” came fast and furious.

Ironically, some of the K Street crowd began holding a series of seminars on the new law. For a princely sum, they advised the affected community how to comply, offering their spin on how it will make the lives of lobbyists, Members and staffers a living hell. In some cases, those who vehemently opposed the bill cashed in by telling those willing to pony up the hefty attendance fees about the parade of horribles that the new law would bring down upon them.

But the “affected community” wasn’t the only audience ripe for the picking. Media types, ever on the lookout for hypocrisy and loopholes, were willing to buy misinformation at face value. The Washington Post even ran a story in which a lawyer/lobbyist sold the paper on the idea that the legislation would prohibit a staffer from accepting an engagement ring from a lobbyist.

Nice story, if it were true. The law did nothing to change the long- standing rule recognizing that Hill staffers do indeed get married and can indeed accept an engagement ring without running afoul of the ethics rules. But why bother with the facts when the story being told is such a good one and seemingly points out the supposed idiocy of the new law?

The latest effort to denigrate the bill appears to be coming out of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s (N.Y.) camp in an attempt to belittle the legislative accomplishments of Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.), her primary rival for the Democratic presidential nomination and a key leader behind the passage of the new law. Clinton is criticizing the landmark legislation in an attempt to demonstrate Obama’s inexperience and weak legislative record as compared with her own.

Of course, all fact-based criticisms should be fair in the political game, and political candidates try to find ways to compare and contrast their records with their opponents’ every day. Political jujitsu requires candidates to try to turn an opponent’s strength into a weakness. The problem here, however, is that to run down the ethics and lobbying reform measure that passed is dead wrong.

The new law is not perfect, just as no piece of legislation passed by a legislative body is. But it is significant, and the Clinton camp’s efforts to minimize that significance are off the mark. The media’s description of the new law also has been off base. Consider, for example, the comments of moderator Charlie Gibson during the New Hampshire debate when he attempted to ridicule the law by saying it requires Members of Congress to eat standing up versus sitting down.

Such a glib dismissal was not only unworthy of him, but Gibson’s characterization failed to capture the important difference between sharing an intimate dinner with two or three lobbyists at a pricey restaurant versus munching on bacon-wrapped scallops at a crowded reception.

Now Clinton has taken up this refrain, most recently on “Meet the Press” and National Public Radio. She also is belittling the call from her fellow Democratic candidates to diminish the influence of lobbyists in Washington policymaking. And some well-heeled Washington lobbyists, such as former Rep. Marty Russo (D-Ill.), also are taking umbrage at the focus on lobbyists, saying he is “sick and tired” of candidates like Obama criticizing them. Russo, by the way, is supporting Clinton.

The ethics and lobbying reform measure came about because in the 2006 elections, the American public said enough was enough. Voters correctly identified that the system in Washington remains too much in the hands of those who can marshal ever-increasing amounts of money to ensure access that allows them to make their case before powerful lawmakers. The reform measure came about because of the outrage over the Abramoff scandal, which presented a startlingly clear picture of how a smart lobbyist could buy his way into the system and turn it to his advantage.

There are two other reasons these efforts to denigrate the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act should not be suffered silently. The law, with its new restrictions on lobbyists’ gifts and travel and increased disclosure requirements, is a significant improvement. Hopefully, it is another step in eliminating the pay-to-play system in Washington. But more needs to be done. Politicians are like most people. They are less likely to be willing to do the hard work of reforming the status quo, from which they benefit greatly, if they don’t feel they get sufficient credit when they actually do something significant.

And if this new law is dismissed as insignificant and a pittance of change, why should the American people believe their elected officials can deliver more? If they are fed a steady diet of cynicism and hopelessness, will they give up? Feeding that cynicism and promoting a sense that nothing can be done in Washington to change the system will lead to a self- fulfilling prophecy. And that is too dangerous a risk for a democracy.

Making our political system better is a work in progress and much more needs to be done. Near the top of any list of unfinished tasks is the proposed Office of Congressional Ethics. Without subpoena power, or even access to that power through application to the ethics committee, the office is little more than window dressing for a derelict committee.

If Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) required any further proof of the need to strengthen the ethics task force’s proposal, it was presented right on cue by the committee itself. In a brazen show of contempt for one of the centerpieces of the Speaker’s legislative accomplishments, the ethics committee issued compliance guidelines that actually gutted rather than interpreted the new law’s prohibition against lobbyists throwing convention parties for Members. In a true “you can’t make this stuff up” moment, the committee informed lobbyists that they could get around the prohibition on these pricey, weeklong fetes by honoring multiple Members, not just one. It’s like saying that bribing one officeholder is illegal, but bribing several at the same time is acceptable.

Democracy is a state of action, not a state of inertia. Let the struggle continue, and let the American people take note of the political capital that each politician is willing to spend to make a difference and live up to campaign promises to “drain the swamp.” It’s only a first step, but the new law deserves a pat on the back, not a slap in the face.

Meredith McGehee is policy director for the Campaign Legal Center and heads McGehee Strategies, a public-interest consulting business.