Posts Tagged ‘lobbyists’

Ten Reforms to Save America: Reform Number Four

Saturday, November 19th, 2011

Is This How It Works?

Whatever we may do about the limiting of congressional terms, or the length of service of Congressional staff, one of the main reasons to tackle that problem is the revolving door between Congress and the lobbying interests in Washington DC.  Whether representing trade groups, corporations, unions, or other groups, the problem is that the lobbyists often know the lay of the land, both physical and political, better than many members of Congress.  Too often, members and staff leave those offices to become lobbyists, and with equal frequency, we find lobbyists becoming Congressional staff.  This cozy relationship will be ended only by doing something drastic:  We must enact a lifetime ban on lobbyists from serving in government, and government  officials or staff from going to work in the lobbying racket.

Once again, I can hear the squealing of all the pigs at the DC troughs: “You can’t do this to us!”  Yes, we the people can.  When most Americans think of politicians leaving office for the private sector, they think of them returning to work in some profession or field that takes them back home, away from Washington DC.  All too often, when politicians depart government service, where they land is in some lobbying firm.  This frequently applies to staff too.  For most Americans, this isn’t considered to be “private sector employment,” but instead merely “public sector looting.”  It’s part of what makes Washington DC stink of corruption, and most Americans suspect it is the reason we have so many complex and convoluted laws.  Naturally, the American people are right about that, but in most cases, they have only the a glimpse of how thorough the corruption is.

The other problem is that the American people have been conditioned to view lobbyists as the source of the problem.  They’re not.  Lobbyists are a symptom just like the runny nose, achy muscles and spiking fever that tells you you’ve been infected with influenza.  The virus is already there, and while you can treat the symptoms, and it will at least make you feel better, your body still must combat the illness or you’ll never recover.  Everybody harbors and image in their mind’s eye of some lobbyist, a briefcase full of cash, and some elected or appointed official waiting greedily to be in receipt of the loot.  The problem is, this isn’t what actually happens in most cases.  Outright bribery of that sort would be caught fairly easily, and the people involved would be dealt with under existing law.  It’s not to say this never happens, because it does, but that’s a fairly stupid politician or lobbyist who gets caught in that fashion.

Instead, there are other ways to enrich themselves, and most involve a kind of extortion racket, or kick-backs, or insider information to be used for personal profit.  Imagine you’re a business, and imagine  the business you’re in is one regulated in some fashion by the federal government(but which industry isn’t?)  Imagine that some politician introduces a bill that you know will effectively destroy your company, or make it easier for a competitor to displace you in the market?  Your inevitable response would be to play self-defense, and you would do that by lobbying Congress.  You might contribute to campaigns and parties, but in all cases, you’d try to make happy everybody who holds your business in the palms of their hands.  This kind of extortion racket is common, and what you discover is that the number of legal contributions “enticed” by this method is scandalous.

Naturally, this works the other way too, as a matter of offense.  Do you need a “competitive edge” in the market?  No problem for Congress.  They just pass a bill that either directly or indirectly fouls the business of your competitors, and “Bingo!” To ensure a Presidential signature, you make sure the provision is attached to the most popular legislation, or at least something certain to get the approval of those who run the show.

Imagine yours is a large concern.  One way to pay off folks for their good deeds on your behalf is to provide them information that will enable them to make a killing in the markets.  A bit of info here, and a little investment there, and before you know it: Instant Congressional millionaire.  Of course, the member just happened to “get lucky” in the market.  Consider how frequently members of Congress get in on the Initial Public Offering of stock in a company commencing public trading.  It’s obscene.  It’s not easy to get in on an IPO for most people, and insider information is frequently a good head-start.  Some have suggested that Congress ought to be forbidden from investing in things related to that on which they’re currently legislating, but the problem with this approach is that the Congress now legislates on every matter under the sun.

Apart from the ban on lobbying, there is something more we can add to this reform, and that is to require members of Congress and their staff to convert their investments into cash savings.  That way, as the value of the dollar goes, so goes the value of their savings.  Under such a regime, the Congress would have every reason to safeguard the value of the dollar by prudent fiscal policies, and you could bet they’d be eye-balling the Federal Reserve a good deal more closely.  Many suggest the use of blind trusts, but the problem is that most things called “blind trusts” aren’t really blind at all, as Governor Sarah Palin recently pointed out in an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal.

Of course, all of these suggested reforms still only address part of the issue.  The biggest part of the problem is that Congress is involved too deeply in business at all levels, and in all respects.  This has become the biggest problem we face: As long as Congress can stick its nose into any business for any reason at all, to impose their notion of “regulating interstate commerce” as they see fit, under whatever outrageous definition they concoct, and with courts willing to interpret the Constitution that way, we’re in serious trouble.  It means they will always have some way to dig their claws into not only business, but also into our lives and our pockets.  We need a wall of separation between business and state at least as thorough as the one that’s been erected between church and state.  If we wish to save America, we’ll need to tackle this too.

 

 

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Ten Reforms to Save America: Reform Number Three

Friday, November 18th, 2011

This Ain't No Tea Party

Of all the things we tend to overlook when we examine the corruption and inefficiency of government, the one area that seems always to escape serious examination is perhaps the most important cog in the outrageous machine:  Professional congressional staff.  The truth is that these people are frequently tasked with the authoring of legislation, and their elected members or the committees for which they work seldom see the final form of the legislation.  If making law is like making sausage, then these are the meat grinders who decide what subtler elements and sometimes major aspects of legislation will be included.  These people aren’t elected, and yet their effect on legislation is profound.  They manage to attach goodies to legislation that have no business in the bills.

Some of the worst are committee staff, where large and complex bills numbering into the thousands of pages frequently emerge.  You don’t think individual members, or even committees of them write all that legal jargon, do you?  No, of course not.  You can’t be tied up with menial chores like crafting legislation when you have a tee-time to make with lobbyists, and a full cocktail party schedule to keep with the DC smart set.  Instead, most of this legal legwork is turned over to staff, and this is where some of the worst abuses can occur.  The necessary reform is simple:  Congressional staff must be term-limited too.

I can hear the complaints from half a continent away, as those staffers recoil in horror at the proposal that they too should be subjected to limits upon their service.  Too damned bad.  The growth in their sheer numbers has been astonishing.   The fastest way to begin cleaning up the mess in Washington DC includes getting these staffers rotated out, permanently.  My argument will be that no member of Congressional staff ought to be employed for more than ten years, life-time, meaning no retirements, no special carve-outs, and no goodies for them.  Of course, there will always be corruption, but to remedy that, you move the pieces around some.  Make it impossible to spend more than one Congress on a given committee’s staff. The committee staff, for instance, of the Ways and Means committee, has far too much power.  It’s time to “spread the wealth,” I believe, and move them around as “temps” which they will be.  Yes, they’ll still have nifty salaries, and of course they can receive benefits just like any other civil servants, but not one damned dime or perquisite more.

There are other things we must put in place with staff:  They must undergo drug-testing, polygraph examination, criminal history and background checks, and be subjected to automatic IRS audit every year they serve the Congress.  Most importantly, to stop the “revolving door,” there must be a lifetime ban on lobbying Congress after their congressional service has ended, and lobbyists may not be eligible to work as Congressional staff for at least ten years after having been a registered lobbyist.  That’s right, I can hear the screams already: “It’s not fair.  You’re singling us out.  Why are you scapegoating us?”  Tough beans.  The simple fact is that it is not in the interests of the people of the United States to let Congressional members accrue undue power, never mind their staff.  They’re already in a position to profit from insider information, so there’s no sense pretending this isn’t a serious problem.

It’s the dirty secret in Washington DC that everybody knows, but few dare acknowledge:  Congressional staff serves as an unelected continuum from which there is no escape.  Voters can fire the top three members of each party on every committee, but still the same program runs.  If you wonder why, the answer is because behind the scenes, the politicians have been relieved of their legislative responsibilities and instead focus on fund-raising, while their staff carries on most if not nearly all of the member’s legislative work.  By the time you consider the impact of Committee staff, the effect is astonishing.  More, there is co-mingling between branches, where staffer X who works for Congressman Y is married to Senior Adviser A who works for executive branch Secretary B.  These sorts of back-channel relationships are well-known to the insiders, and they’re all players in the same game.  They know the rules, they know the way in which “things get done” in Washington, and you as the voter, so remote from this distant capital, have no idea what they’re doing, or why.

There’s no doubt that many are conscientious and diligent, but if we’re going to regain our control over this government, it must include an in-depth examination of Congressional staff, and perhaps of executive branch staff as well.  It’s all much too chummy in Washington DC, and while you think these people are adversarial under our two-party system, most often, that’s a show played out in front of the press.  Behind the scenes, it’s the staff carrying the water, and there’s no denying that they’re very collegial across the board.  Many of them have their own political aspirations, and it is in this way that we wind up with a permanent political class entrenched in the halls of power.  If you want that changed, you’d better add this to your list of reforms if we’re going to save America.