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Huge holes remain despite rules changes

For the first time in decades, Congress has hope for improving part of its ethical framework, thanks to the determination of leaders like Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Rep. Louise M. Slaughter, D-Fairport.

From now on, both the Senate and the House will bar members from taking gifts, meals or travel from lobbyists, and end the notorious practice of flying on corporate jets at symbolic rates. But there are still massive holes in the system.

The rules changes deal with published ways that wealthy interests influenced senators' and representatives' votes and got them to pressure federal agencies for things like Indian gambling licenses.

As welcome as they are, the rules must be seen in terms of cool cash, whose flow is as difficult to control as mercury.

For example, if Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., had to repeat the fund raising for her recent Senate campaign, she would have to raise $98,700 a week over six years.

If Rep. Thomas M. Reynolds, R-Clarence, replaces what he spent last time, he will need to raise $50,000 a week over the next congressional two-year cycle.

Clinton and Reynolds are opposites on the ideological chart. They're cited here to show that no matter what you stand for in Congress, you can get campaign money somehow if you want it.

Glamorous corporate jets, gourmet meals, expensive drinks and overseas golf outings gave lobbyists quality time with members. Yet the price to influence-peddlers of these intimate settings was modest compared with what campaigns cost them.

In last year's campaign, hard money donations to congressional candidates topped $1.3 billion.

While it would pay for only a week of the Iraq War, the figure symbolizes the high financial wall that separates our legislators from average citizens and even modestly prosperous business people.

There is no longer any hope of limiting the total outlay of campaign cash since the Supreme Court in 1976 said that while individual contributions could be controlled by Congress, there is no cap on what a candidate can spend.

If left standing, Buckley v.Valeo says there is little hope for a system of publicly financed elections.

This means that enforcement of existing rules and laws is the only route to honesty and accountability in the federal government.

And here is where the system breaks down, pathetically. Everyone knows the Federal Elections Commission lays a light hand on those who break the campaign finance laws -- in the spirit of Major League Baseball's stand on steroids.

A proposal for a Senate Office of Public Integrity, to oversee the enforcement of Senate rules, was blocked by Reid last Thursday. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., failed to include a similar enforcement office in the new House rules. Further, she continued the bipartisan 1997 "truce" on ethics by refusing to change the rule that states that the Ethics Committee can consider only a complaint brought by a sitting member, and nobody else.

Each house can adopt its own rules on how its members respond to lobbyists' or campaign donors' behavior. At the risk of slicing things too thinly, I must add that rules guiding how lobbyists themselves behave must be contained in regular acts of Congress, and get the president's approval.

The House will consider changes later. The Senate passed some on Thursday.

But the enforcement of laws on lobbying is notoriously lax.

The Senate and House both cracked down on the practice of "earmarks" -- slipping special appropriations into larger bills. Fortunately, long-awaited funding for Buffalo's federal courthouse is squeaky clean and is not in the smarmy earmark category.


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