Let's Elect Honest People to Congress

Every now and then, the lobbying cesspool in Washington rears its ugly head and we writers are all obligated to create vast lists of reforms to fix the mess. How about this one: Elect honest people to Congress.

So many of the talking heads seem to miss the point: the current scandal is less about lobbyists than it is about members of Congress and other people in high government positions. If members all refused to take bribes, there would be no bribery.

So is the term "honest lobbyist" a contradiction terms? Well, no; there are good people who work in lobbying firms. But by its very nature, a lobbyist is charged with the task of gaining access to those in power. The most efficient way to do that is through money, meals, trips and other gifts. The scandal is not that these incentives are offered — it’s that so many members of Congress accept them.

It’s a classic case of the fox being in charge of the henhouse. Congress could easily change the situation by passing strict laws against bribery, strengthening the penalties against themselves if they break the law, ending the practice of awarding gambling licenses to Indian tribes, and abolishing the Internal Revenue Code in favor of a national consumption tax.

The administration could issue executive orders making it tougher for government employees with access to the halls of power to leave government for positions with high-powered lobbying firms. The reason none of these things are being done is that government derives its power from being able to hand out favors that these new rules would quash. No Indian casinos … no Jack Abramoff scandal. But no Abramoff money either, and so there is no movement to change the status quo.

Democrats are furious about it. "A culture of corruption" charges the Democratic leadership as if they themselves are innocent as the driven snow. Not exactly. Let’s go back to the early days of the Clinton administration when the candidate was promising "the most ethical administration in American history."

Candidate Clinton actually made lobbying a campaign issue in 1992. "The last 12 years were nothing less than an extended hunting season for high-priced lobbyists and Washington influence peddlers. On streets where statesmen once strolled, a never-ending stream of money now changes hands — tying the hands of those elected to lead," said Clinton. It would not be this way in a Clinton administration, he promised.

The promise was seemingly kept. On his first day as President, Bill Clinton signed an executive order limiting the ability of senior White House staff and other agencies from becoming lobbyists. Instead of one year, they would now have to wait five years before cashing in.

But just one week before he left office, Bill Clinton rescinded that ban. Catherine Crier writes that a presidential adviser said that Clinton had no further use for the image, so to the relief of his outgoing staff, he dropped all pretense.

Crier further notes that the executive order was dropped just in time for White House counsel Jack Quinn — who had drafted the terms of the ban …quot; to lobby for his client Marc Rich. You’ll recall that Rich, a sleazy financier on the lam, wanted a pardon. Quinn had been working for Rich even, before the ban was lifted under a loophole that exempted lawyers from some of the restrictions.

So it ended up being a win-win situation for sleazy Democrats.

Clinton’s staff was freed up to become lobbyists. Jack Quinn was not bound by the rule he had drafted and worked the President — while he worked FOR the President. Marc Rich got a last-minute presidential pardon. And, through his wife Denise, Rich lavished money on the Democratic National Committee, the Al Gore and Hillary Clinton campaigns, and the Clinton Presidential Library. Denise Rich refused to testify before Congress citing her Constitutional right against self-incrimination.

A "culture of corruption"? Yes indeed. But it’s not a Republican culture or even a Democratic one. It’s simply the fact that big corporations, foreign countries, unions, gambling interests and other big-monied organizations want access to government power. They are willing to pay for that access and our representatives in government are more than willing to take the money.