Ours is a world of nuclear giants and ethical infants.
— Omar Bradley, 1948 Armistice Day Address
It's that time of year when Title I of the Ethics in Government Act of 1978 springs into action, enlightening the media, bewildering the rest of us and assuaging the collective conscience of the U.S. Congress. In the case of the House of Representatives, the enlightenment follows on the heels of a reentry into the Dark Ages, led by insect exterminator "I am the federal government" Tom DeLay. (Upon being told by an employee in a restaurant in a federal building in mid-June that smoking in the building was banned by the federal government, the exterminator reportedly shouted "I am the federal government" and, cigar in hand, stormed out of the restaurant.) Being the federal government, he was able to undo what his colleagues had done in November 1995, mimicking senatorial action taken earlier that year.
In July 1995 the Senate unanimously adopted a resolution restricting senators and staff from accepting gifts of more than $50 and placing a $100 annual limit on gifts from any one source. Senators and staff were permitted to accept gifts from family and close personal friends, but could not accept payment for travel to substantially recreational events — so-called charity events. In November 1995, the House adopted a similar resolution by a vote of 422 to 6. It banned House members and staff from accepting gifts, including meals and trips, except for gifts from family members and friends.
In January this year, Exterminator DeLay, in one of his first official acts as majority leader, (a description he may prefer to "Exterminator," although as far as his effect on the country, the latter is a more accurate description) pushed through a change to House rules. He eliminated the ban on free travel, thus enabling him and his colleagues to attend a fundraiser he sponsored that took place in Florida at a place Mr. DeLay describes as "Fantasy Island." Upon learning of his rule extermination, some members of the House were reportedly upset. Some day they may become angry enough to reverse it. For now the score is Exterminator 1, United States 0.
In light of that backsliding by the House, it was refreshing, sort of, to read the financial disclosures made by members of the U.S. Senate, disclosures designed to instill a sense of confidence in senatorial propriety. (Reading the same disclosures for members of the House disclosed that they are as church mice to bishops and may explain why their leader felt they should get free trips not permitted to their wealthy colleagues in the Senate.)
Financial Disclosure Statements are filed by the senators with the Secretary of the Senate, Office of Public Records, for each year they remain in office. The reports must be filed no later than May 15 and are required by the Ethics in Government Act of 1978.
It is always exciting to get the real skinny on what our elected persons are worth. It also inspires a feeling of gratitude that they are willing to be so candid with us — until one begins reading the reports. What reading discloses is that the less a senator has, the more the report discloses and the more a senator has, the less the report discloses. Precision is not required in the reports and the media dutifully report what the senators report without observing that what they report is as useful as being told what color shirt a particular senator wore on a particular day.
According to the rules, a U.S. senator who has assets valued at less than $1,001 does not have to make any disclosure of what those assets are. The first wealth category requiring a report is for someone who has between $1,001 and $15,000, and the fact that a senator's wealth is somewhere between those two numbers is all that must be reported. The next level is for those having between $15,000 and $50,000 and the next is $50,000 to $100,000. Succeeding categories go up, respectively to $250,000, $500,000 and finally $1,000,000. Thereafter, whoever made up the rules decided it was too much trouble for the senators to be so specific. Thus, the categories jump in the millions of dollars. The next categories are for senators who have assets valued at more than one million and less than $5 million, more than $5 million to less than $25 million, more than $25 million to less than $50 million and if a senator has more than $50 million, who cares? All the senator reports is more than $50 million. And thus the public is informed.
We learn, for example, that Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee owns stock having a total value somewhere between $1.5 million and $6 million. Alabama Sen. Richard Shelby has an apartment complex that may be worth $5 million, but might be worth $25 million, owns shares in a title company that might be worth $1 million, but then again, might be worth $5 million, and so on. A sophisticated observer might observe that knowing that someone has between $5 million and $25 million is the same as knowing nothing. Of course, that is not what the U.S. senators think. They think they are imparting lots of information. They expect to receive lots of credit for being so candid. They won't get it from me. I'm no more enlightened than I was before the report was issued.
We can at least take comfort in the fact that they can't accept free travel. In that respect they're ahead of their poorer House colleagues.
Christopher Brauchli is a Boulder lawyer and and writes a weekly column for the Knight Ridder news service. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright 2003, The Daily Camera