Al Swift 2¢ Worth

Reform: Here We Go Again

My partner Bob Hynes has been around as long as I have. I served 16 years in Congress and did staff work before that. Bob was President Gerald Ford’s key floor staffer when he was Republican Leader in the House. Recently we co-wrote an op-ed piece, from which the following is excerpted

Life in official Washington can be a merry-go-round in its predictability. What just revolved into view is another scandal and the predictable frantic calls for reform which echo ones we’ve heard before. This time, instead of writing a lot of complicated rules that often prove to be more loophole than reform, why not try something different, something simple.

Start with a principle: Members of Congress and their staffs are here for only one purpose – to do the public’s business. Therefore reforms should be based on that principle. Secondly, keep it simple. The more straightforward the rule, the less room for evading, avoiding or eviscerating it.

Though they may be as welcome to Congress and “K Street” as Kenny G at a Stones’ concert here are some suggestions.

Ban Entertainment, Gifts
Ban outright all entertainment and gifts. Entertainment would include theatre, golf outings, football games and the like. If Congress’ purpose is the public’s business, these non-business activities should simply disappear. Members of Congress, goodness knows, need to play. Theirs is a frantic life filled with tension. But they can pay for it themselves.

As to gifts, someone will say, “Isn’t banning a gift like an 89¢ Bic a little silly.”
Those inconsequential gifts are of no real value but allowing them forces rule makers to draw ridiculous lines. The current gift limit is $49.99. Isn’t it just as silly, then, to outlaw a $50 gift? Just banning any gift of any value makes it simple, straightforward, easily understood and hard to scam. Ditto entertainment. This goes for staff and personal family members as well. (The usual exceptions for exchanges between relatives and old friends would still apply.)

Travel Must Be Authorized
Travel should also be related to Congressional business – whether it is paid for publicly or privately. We happen to believe that official travel – if not abused – is a very good thing and we would encourage it. In any event, it is not a source of potential bribery.

As to travel paid for by private, third parties we would suggest that no travel be permitted any Member of Congress or staff unless specifically authorized by a committee with jurisdiction over the “business” that is to be done. Committees would be responsible for determining the relevance, value and validity of any travel paid for by outside sources. Committees would be required to file full disclosure of the trip within 30 days. Members would be required to report it on their web sites. (More about that in a minute.)

Why not just ban private travel altogether? We think travel can be extremely valuable to Members and staff in helping them better understand problems on which there may be legislation. If such travel must be authorized and reported, thus making it transparent, we believe it should be allowed. Gift and entertainment restrictions would still apply.

Free Lunch
This last proposal may come as a surprise. We would lift all rules pertaining to accepting meals paid for by someone else. There are two reasons. Current limits simply don’t pass the laugh test. No one sells their vote or is even be influenced by a meal. The current arbitrary limit is $50. It rather suggests one might be influenced by a $75 meal. Nonsense. How much can you spend on a meal for one person, anyway?

On the other hand, business is commonly and traditionally discussed over meals in this country. So abandon the rather hypocritical pretense that this meal limit is accomplishing anything. Do away with it.

But – in its place – demand transparency. Require Members to list prominently on their web sites at the beginning of each month, along with any privately paid travel they have taken, all meals they or members of their staff have accepted from others. It would include information about who paid, what interests they represented, what business was discussed and how much the meal cost. A constituent in New York, Los Angeles or Chicago would probably shrug off a $100 dinner, but it might be considered an outrage in Butte, Topeka or Macon. Let Members worry about how their voters will react. Leave whether or not their dinning activity is being abused up to Members discretion – and, by making it public, to editorial writers, the press, their opponents and constituents.

These clear cut proposals would wipe away confusion. Members and staff either could or could not do specific things and would have to get express authorization for travel. That would eliminate a lot of uncertainty and opportunity for mischief in the current restrictions.

Campaign Fund Raising
There are other problems. A huge one is Campaign fund raising. It has been stubbornly resistant to any but the most convoluted and draconian solutions and they don’t really work very well. Yet, this is probably a greater potential corruptor than all the others combined. Because spending money has been deemed an expression of free speech it is impossible to address this massive problem directly. The indirect solutions have been complex and largely ineffective. We do not have a magic wand to solve this one, but suggest that fast, complete, frequent and accessible reports of campaign giving/receiving help.

Finally, we have to note that Jack Abramoff has pleaded guilty to violating laws that are on the books already. We’ll see if any one else is flushed out in his wake. If so, it will also be because of rules and laws that exist today, not ones that will be passed in the future. But – as we have seen the previous times the merry-go-round revolved – when such a scandal explodes Congress feels the need to adopt new rules, even if they do not specifically address the pertinent skullduggery or truly change much. Reforms will be passed. However, this time, instead of just going through the motions, why not do something simple, straightforward and effective?

Posted on Monday, August 15th, 2011
By: csh
Posted in: 2006
Colling Swift & Hynes P.O. Box 275 Clifton, VA 20124 P. (202) 347-8000 F. (202) 315-2598