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Oxymoron ethics
Scripps Howard News Service


May 24, 2007

WASHINGTON -- Congressional Republicans are badly in need of a laugh and their Democratic colleagues are obligingly giving them one.

Last year the Republicans had the teensiest little problem with ethics. It seems their breach of the ethical niceties sent two of their number to jail and more may be on the way, and forced two others out of Congress.

Being in the minority for so long, the Democrats didn't have quite the same opportunities for ethical lapses, but even so, the voters handed control of the Congress to the Democrats.

Their new leader and now House Speaker, Nancy Pelosi, said on her party's behalf, "We pledge to make this the most honest, ethical and open Congress in history." One is tempted to say this is not a particularly tall order.

The Senate quickly passed a package of reforms, but everything is easier for senators because they are better known and in office longer. Any sentient being plucked off the street would recognize at least some senators. Oh, come on, you don't think they could pick Hillary Clinton, Ted Kennedy and John McCain out of a police lineup?

But it's harder out there for House members. Being largely anonymous -- hint: the House Republican leader is preternaturally tan and smokes -- and having to run every two years, they must raise money like a gerbil on a treadmill. And even if they don't need the campaign cash, their parties make them raise it for the members who do.

The House joined the Senate in outlawing some of the more flagrant abuses like lobbyist-paid gifts and trips to deluxe resorts because these looked bad. Indeed, to the common man unskilled at subtle shadings and nuances of ethics, they looked like bribes.

But the rank and file began balking at two provisions.

One, the so-called "revolving door" provision, would have extended from one year to two years the waiting period before former members of Congress could lobby their former colleagues.

And beseeching their old buddies is increasingly what ex-members do. According to one study, nearly half the lawmakers who left Congress between 1998 and 2004 became lobbyists and, it's a safe bet, highly paid ones. Like fish, former lawmakers are most valuable when they are the most fresh. In two years, Congress could change hands again.

One of the more impassioned -- and unintentionally revealing -- arguments against extending the waiting period was made by Rep. Michael Capuano, D-Mass., who said:

"I made a career change 20 years ago to be a full-time elected official. I am no longer qualified to be a tax attorney. It is like saying to people, 'Please, come into public service, give it your all and when you are done you are completely unqualified for anything else.' "

I don't know about Boston, but in our neck of the woods it's the politicians pestering the people to send them to Congress rather than vice versa. And as for the tax-attorney thing, those places at the mall that offer to do your taxes and loan you the amount of your refund are always looking for people.

The other provision is called "bundling," and that's when a lobbyist goes around to his likeminded brethren and has them each write a check for the maximum permissible campaign contribution to a select lawmaker. The lobbyist then bundles the checks, much more impressive in a group than singly, and hands them to the campaign treasurer in a way that there's no mistaking the benefactors' identity.

The proposed change would require bundled contributions to be reported as such. As it is, the lobbyist knows where the money came from. So does the lawmaker. And if you're willing to burrow enough reports and have an encyclopedic knowledge of likely donors, you might know too.

The late Gov. Huey Long, who kept his fellow politicians honest by keeping most of the money for himself, was once asked if there was a place for ethics in politics. Oh, yes, the Kingfish replied (actually, he said something stronger), we'll use anything we can get our hands on.


Contact Dale McFeatters at McFeattersD(at)
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Scripps Howard News Service,

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