Can Pelosi Deliver on Earmark Reform?

For Adam and Eve, it was a serpent, a fruit, and a promise: "Ye shall be as gods." For members of Congress, it is a lobbyist, a free trip, and a promise: "We will treat you as gods." Since the beginning of time there has been temptation followed by a fall, so we should not be surprised to know that it continues today. Zsa Zsa Gabor famously said, "I can resist anything but temptation!" The same might be said of some members of Congress.

If Adam and Eve could be so easily compromised despite their intimacy with God and their residence in paradise, what chance does a Senator or Representative have? On Capitol Hill, "serpents" are everywhere, tempting our elected officials to put personal gain above the public good. Of course, not all lobbyists are serpents—lobbying can be a perfectly honorable job. Few Americans have the time or money to travel to D.C. and personally speak to members of Congress about issues that are important to them. Therefore, non-profit organizations and businesses routinely hire lobbyists on their behalf. These lobbyists are able to present legislators with information and arguments that help them see an issue from a variety of perspectives.

When a lobbyist successfully persuades a legislator to come around to his point of view, one would hope that it was due to sound reasoning and compelling advocacy. Luxurious dinners, expensive gifts, and all-expense-paid trips have nothing to do with persuasive arguments, they are merely temptations. The message they convey is, "Vote as we want you to vote, obtain funds for our business or cause, and life will be good for you."

Where is the public interest in this transaction? When elected officials live the good life in exchange for lobbyist "perks", taxpayer dollars are wasted and bad legislation is enacted. Voters do not send representatives to eat, drink and be merry on our behalf. We send them to work on our behalf. But when temptation enters the mix, many lawmakers fall prey.

Now, however, perhaps there is hope. The new speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, has promised to pass strict House rules that will reduce the temptations that legislators face. As I have said before, this should be a bipartisan effort. When it comes to corruption, it is not Democrats against Republicans, it is the common good vs. special interests and selfish politicians.

Many of the suggestions that have been proposed by the Democrats so far are quite encouraging. Before discussing these improvements, however, it must be said that Speaker Pelosi is making a serious mistake by prohibiting Republicans from meaningful participation in the reform process. In doing so, the Democratic majority is losing an opportunity to work together with Republicans to make a positive change, they are missing an opportunity for constructive Republican input, and they are being unduly partisan and unfair. Some will respond that Republicans have been similarly unfair. At the Center for a Just Society we have consistently argued that it does not serve the public interest to point one’s finger across the aisle and say, "They did it first." This juvenile approach to lawmaking must stop. The speaker of the House should break the cycle by setting a new example.

In substance, many of the Democrats’ proposals are quite helpful. According to The Hill, the new rules will "ban all travel paid for by lobbyists or organizations that employ lobbyists, require the ethics committee to pre-approve travel paid for by outside groups, enact a total gift ban, and require lawmakers to pay the market cost of flying on a corporate jet…" These changes make sense. Successful lobbying should result from persuasive arguments, not expensive gifts.

There are other proposed changes as well, many of them having to do with disclosure. For example, lobbyists may be required to disclose the "earmarks" for which they have lobbied. Legislators currently have the ability to earmark federal funds for pet projects, and lobbyists often work hard to ensure that they get as much of that "free" federal money as possible. These earmarks are generally off the radar screens of most voters, even though they are extremely expensive for taxpayers. It is currently unknown which lobbyists push for which earmarks. If forced to disclose who’s been lobbying whom for earmarks, congressmen may be less likely to throw their support behind projects that do not serve the common good.

The American people should send a clear, unmistakable message to their lawmakers: no more corruption! Goodness knows there are temptations all around, and as a result, corruption abounds. If Nancy Pelosi can lead Congress into an era of less corruption, she will have performed a valuable service to her country.