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January 18, 2006
Lobby Loophole Should Get Closed First

The Washington Post notes a rather large loophole in the new ethics package touted by the GOP for reforming Congress, one which could generate even more lobbying cash for the coffers of DC politicians, if handled correctly. While the proposal bans gifts and specific kinds of travel reimbursements, it ironically leaves others in place as long as lobbyists supplement them with cash:

Lawmakers are about to bombard the American public with proposals that would crack down on lobbyists. Several prominent plans, including one outlined yesterday by House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), would specifically ban meals and privately paid travel for lawmakers.

Or would they?

According to lobbyists and ethics experts, even if Hastert's proposal is enacted, members of Congress and their staffs could still travel the world on an interest group's expense and eat steak on a lobbyist's account at the priciest restaurants in Washington.

The only requirement would be that whenever a lobbyist pays the bill, he or she must also hand the lawmaker a campaign contribution. Then the transaction would be perfectly okay.

Apparently Hastert and other Republicans wanted to separate lobbying reform from campaign-finance reform, especially considering the difficult debate surrounding the last, disastrous approach to the latter issue, the BCRA. Unfortunately, that won't be possible, and any real reform should address both anyway. The two share some problems in common, notably a series of loopholes that favor insiders with access (lobbysists in this case, the Exempt Media in the BCRA). The Hastert proposal makes for a well-intentioned effort but sets up a big failure down the road.

Money will flow through any system put in place, find the loopholes, and exploit them as surely as water finds the crevices in rocks and splits them over time. Politicians and lobbyists have no stake in sealing the lawmaking process off from the enormous stacks of cash that activists generate to promote their causes, no matter how just or unjust they may be. And while the quality of leadership, especially in ethical transparency, needs an upgrade for both political parties, the only real solution is to take the money and the power out of the federal government. The true problem lies with the amount of power that the federal government wields and the vast sums of money it skims off of the American consumer and economic system to fund itself. As long as that continues, there will always be lobbyists looking to redirect it to their clients, politicians willing to take a piece of the action to deliver it, and the ethicists will always be one scandal behind in preventing it.

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at January 18, 2006 7:18 AM

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