Thursday, December 01, 2005

Fixing the corruption--Baltimore Sun Style

Today the Baltimore Sun opines about the corruption and scandals taking place on Capitol Hill:

Relationships between lawmakers and lobbyists are so vulnerable to corruption that the line is easily crossed. Lawmakers depend increasingly on well-heeled lobbyists for the campaign contributions they need to stay in office; lobbyists need lawmakers to shape laws and spending decisions to benefit their clients.

It's a short leap, really, from wealthy corporate and other interests showering campaign cash on sympathetic legislators to the sort of out-and-out bribery practiced by disgraced Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham and the defense industry lobbyists who plied him with at least $2.4 million in personal gifts in return for federal contracts.

First, 99.99999% of lobbyists are honest, above-board, hard-working individuals trying to do right by their clients. For every Jack Abramoff there are thousands of lobbyists who will do everything within the rules to advocate for their client. Just like any profession, a few bad apples can spoil the whole cart in the eyes of the public, but that does not mean that every lobbyist is like that.

Second, it is not a short leap between campaign funding and bribery. One is legal, limited and disclosed, the other is illegal and always has been. On teh federal level an individual lobbyist can only contribute $4,200 to his/her favored candidate. All but a few lobbyist can't afford to make such a contribution to more than one or two candidates. Even if the lobbyist has access to a well-funded PAC, the legal limit is $10,000 total to that candidate.

I don't know about the people at the Sun, but I see a massive, enormous, mountain sized difference between a $10,000 contribution and $2.4 million in bribes.

Lobbyist disclosure and gift restrictions should also be tightened. The moribund House Ethics Committee must be revived, and the co-opted Federal Election Commission must be replaced. Campaign finance laws need a complete overhaul.

Once again, the FEC becomes the whipping boy, but no blame is placed squarely on the shoulders of architect of the campaign finance laws--Congress. When is the press going to realize that beyond a certain limited scope, an executive agency like the FEC does not get to make law!!! The law they interpret is written by Congress (in what could be considered a conflict of interest itself), but the Sun doesn't seem to understand that.

However, I will agree that lobbying disclosure rules need to be tighted up. In an era where faster disclosure is possible, federal lobbyists only report their activity on a semi-annual basis and there is enough wiggle-room and loopholes to drive an aircraft carrier through with room to spare.

But like a lot of papers who make their money reporting on corruption scandals, the Sun doesn't really want to culture cleaned up--otherwise what would they report.

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