Sunday, January 08, 2006

"The Scandal Is The Rules Themselves"

There is a disturbing article in the NYT about the rise in lobbying activity: Go Ahead, Try to Stop K Street, by Todd Purdum.  The article conveys the implication that one factor that spurred the rise of lobbying activity has been the increase in the size of government and the complexity of government regulation:
But the problem is broader than Mr. Abramoff, Mr. DeLay or even the inherent potential for abuse in one-party rule of all three branches of government. It also has to do with the astounding growth of the lobbying industry, a growth that has tracked the growth of the federal government itself. The rise of government regulation - first in the New Deal and then in the 1960's and 70's - spawned a parallel rise in the private sector's efforts to master the new system. Between the early 1970's and the mid-1980's, the number of trade associations doubled; in the first half of the 1980's alone, the number of registered lobbyists quadrupled, according to The Washington Monthly.
Of course, any time the system changes, there are people who will try to figure out how to make a profit from those changes.  Another point here is that correlation is not causation.  It may not entirely be accurate to say that the lobbying efforts increased in response to increased regulation.   In fact, it seems probable that some of the increased regulation occurred as a result of lobbying.  

There are some apparent good guys in all of this.  Some are trying to tighten the rules pertaining to lobbying:
"The scandal here is not that the rules were broken; the scandal is the rules themselves," said Representative Martin T. Meehan, Democrat of Massachusetts, who with a Republican colleague, Christopher Shays of Connecticut, and Senators John McCain and Russell D. Feingold, has been a leader in pressing to overhaul campaign finance and ethics rules. "Lobbying is part of our system, but there is a set of ethical standards and rules that ought to be followed."

Together with Representative Rahm Emanuel of Illinois and Mr. Feingold, Mr. Meehan has introduced legislation that would, among other things, require lobbyists to file quarterly financial disclosures, instead of semiannual ones and to disclose just whom in the government they lobbied. Former members of Congress would also not be able to lobby their colleagues for two years, as opposed to the current one year. Members would be required to submit detailed itineraries and descriptions of expenses for privately sponsored travel.
Personally, I don't think those proposed changes would have much effect.  I would propose something that would be intended to have a powerful psychological effect.  Specifically, I would like to have members of congress be required to personally stand up each month, in front of a video camera, and read a statement detailing all of their contacts with lobbyists, and all transactions that have taken place between them, their staffs and families, and lobbyists.  The readings would be tedious and unpleasant.  The recordings would be saved by the opposition and used during election campaigns.  That is perfectly fair.  The members of congress might not engage in certain activities, if they know that the tape will come back to haunt them.

Mr. Gingrich may be on the right track with this:
Mr. Gingrich has offered more ideas. He would allow unlimited fund-raising in members' states or districts, but bar fund-raising within the District of Columbia, and would require that all contacts between lobbyists and elected and appointed officials be posted weekly on the Internet.
I do think that a personal, videotaped reading would be more effective than an Internet posting, but the posted data would be easier to collate for reporting purposes.  Perhaps another idea would be to require that meetings with lobbyists be broadcast live with a webcam.  Perhaps most effective, though, would be a financial disincentive.  Former members of congress often become lobbyists themselves, after leaving office.  I propose that any profits they make from such activities should be subject to a special tax.  Something in the neighborhood of 75% might do the job.  That is fair, too.  After all, it was their public service that enabled them to make those profits, so some of the money rightfully ought to be returned to the public, as a royalty of sorts.