So, at long last, and with the begrudging signature of the president of the United States, the so-called lobbying- and ethics-reform bill is now law. Well, hip, hip, hooray.
"A great day it is indeed," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D.-Calif.) said at a press conference. "Democrats in Washington are draining the swamp to make this the most honest Congress in history." Take that, culture of corruption!
Oh, if only the world of Washington influence-peddling were so simple that a little bit of new fundraising disclosure here, a well-meaning ban on junkets there, and a sprinkling of earmark disclosure all around, and bam, presto, shazam! The most honest Congress in history! In history!
Lest we get too cynical, though, there is some good here. Disclosure, for example, is a helpful, knowledge being power and all that. Now, thanks to this new bill, we the public will know more about what lobbyists are giving to whom, and how they are bundling contributions. We will know more about "earmarks." And soon, we will be treated to a steady stream of reports from the good-natured numbers crunchers at various public-interest watchdogs around town, each nourishing our sense of outrage at how much money is sloshing around. Each full of sound and fury, signifying . . .
But then, come election time, our beloved member of Congress will arrive at the local pancake breakfast, cheerfully telling us how he got this federal funding for a regional biotechnology center that is creating jobs (an earmark), this federal grant for a new cancer ward at the city hospital (an earmark), and that federal grant to keep a cherished museum afloat (an earmark). Then he will offer the usual nostrums about the awful corruption in Washington that he (tirelessly, and mostly on his own) is working to fix, and we will think: What a great guy. I'm voting for him!
As for the ban on meals and free corporate travel and other tasteless gifts to lawmakers, it only means that lobbyists will just have to spend even more time at $1,000-a-plate fundraisers, which members of Congress, in their infinite wisdom, never considered banning lobbyists from attending. But the lobbyists will be okay. More regulations mean more specialized and valuable expertise to navigate the process. Sure, they have might more paperwork now, but they are getting well paid for their time.
The big question, of course, is what is lobby and ethics reform trying to change? Is it the "culture of corruption," the supposed mechanistic quid-quo-pro graft and bribery that Jack Abramoff came to symbolize? If so, there's no need for new laws. Just enforce the existing ones, as the Justice Department ultimately did. Remember, Jack Abramoff is in jail now. The need is for better people. But that has been the need since Day One.
Still, you have to be pretty cynical about politicians to think that they are such ciphers that their unconditional support can be secured for a prime rib or a prime seat at a Nationals game. Sure, there are bad apples, and instances of what we know as corruption. But from a perspective of representative democracy, the problem is not that it is a venal swamp in need of draining, but simply that a minority of interests with the majority of financial resources hire the majority of the lobbyists, who in turn convince the majority of the elected representatives what the "right thing" to do is. And they are darn persuasive about it. For example, why would a pharmaceutical company risk bribing a congressman when it can just bring in sick patient after sick patient to beg politely for continued full Medicare drug reimbursements? The media like to focus on the scandals. But most lobbying happens above board. What really matters is the quantity of it.
So, what is to be done? Well, for one, pay congressional staffers better so they'll stick around longer, developing independent expertise on issues instead of going off to work as lobbyists as soon as they turn 26 or 27. Give Congress more independent sources of information so they don't have to depend on lobbyists so much to know what's going on with an issue. And enact public financing of federal elections so lawmakers don't feel any extra pressure to keep those with the most money the most happy. But, most importantly, let's have a real conversation about the ways in which the current lobbying system does or does not represent the public at large instead of overblowing a few instances of corruption that were punishable under existing laws.
Lee Drutman, a frequent contributor, is the co-author of The People's Business: Controlling Corporations and Restoring Democracy.
© 2007 The Providence Journal