Connection between Money and Politics Gets More Troubling

Last week added some bad ingredients to the already deeply troubling connection between money and politics.

The House ethics committee issued reports on allegations involving a number of House Members about lobbying and earmarks via the PMA Group, and about lawmaker trips to the Caribbean. In the first instance, the committee exonerated seven members of the Appropriations Committee; in the latter, it admonished Ways and Means Chairman Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.) while letting four others off the hook.

Did these Members violate the rules? I do not want to second-guess the bottom line of the ethics committee or get too much into the weeds, especially since five of the seven PMA cases had first been carefully addressed by the independent Office of Congressional Ethics, with similar findings. In two of the cases, Reps. Todd Tiahrt (R-Kan.) and Peter Visclosky (D-Ind.), both of whom refused flatly to talk to the OCE, OCE's recommendation that the committee dig a little deeper was rejected despite lingering questions. With Visclosky, the timing of his fundraising solicitations and his earmark requests paralleled behavior that got an admonishment from an earlier incarnation of the committee for then-Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas).

I do want and expect a committee that is a zealous guardian of the standards of the House, setting out clear markers and making it crystal clear to Members and staff that abiding by the letter of the rules is not enough to maintain the ethical standards we expect and deserve from our lawmakers.

In the travel case, with trips sponsored by the Carib News Foundation via corporate contributions, the committee focused its blame on staff, for Rangel and the others, while ignoring evidence that all of the travelers, even if ignorant of the direct source of the travel monies, were plainly aware that there were corporate sponsors of the conferences they attended, and while doing little about the underreporting by Members of the actual costs of the trips.

Even if I might have come to a different conclusion, there is certainly a reasonable case to be made that the lawmakers in question here did not technically or deliberately violate any rules. But what troubles me is that the ethics committee did not use either occasion to issue a clarion call to the House about the huge ethical questions here. There are the issues involving soliciting or accepting campaign funds while offering earmarks to those solicited or contributing. And there are those issues surrounding the tone-deaf approach way too many Members have taken to trips abroad, in providing inaccurate pre-trip information to the committee to get "pre-clearance" for travel, unquestioning acceptance of who is alleged to be paying for the trips and in a slipshod approach to the reporting requirements.

I do not want an ethics committee that becomes an avenging angel, punishing Members left and right for transgressions. But I do want and expect a committee that is a zealous guardian of the standards of the House, setting out clear markers and making it crystal clear to Members and staff that abiding by the letter of the rules is not enough to maintain the ethical standards we expect and deserve from our lawmakers. When the committee earlier blasted the OCE for its investigation of Rep. Sam Graves (R-Mo.) over a relatively minor case of a Member not disclosing his financial ties to a witness he called before a committee, it focused narrowly on whether there was a specific violation of a House rule, not on whether Members should zealously avoid conduct that does not reflect well on the standards of the House.

The need to make the point about standards is so much greater now following the Supreme Court's colossally ruinous Citizens United decision. Opening the floodgates to unlimited corporate money directly in campaigns will distort the policy process in multiple ways. Lawmakers fearful of massive attacks of independent ads trashing them will be even more driven to raise money themselves, and we can expect as a consequence even more questions being raised about the nexus between campaign solicitations, earmarks and contracts.

Lobbying firms like PMA, not to mention companies and trade associations, have a new tool in their arsenals--not just campaign money, but bundles for independent ads, either for or against lawmakers or their campaign opponents. Powerful lawmakers have an added incentive to shake down companies for major league campaign help (or even for attack ads run against their opponents). And, as I pointed out in an earlier column, much of the corruption that will flow from this decision will occur without the money actually being spent: an amendment here, a clause weakened or excised there, a comma deleted or added so that the attack ads never occur.

This awful decision was made by a group of justices who have not been within a country mile of a campaign or an election, much less a real live legislature; they, especially Justice Anthony Kennedy, the author of the opinion, are at best totally ignorant about politics and lawmaking and blissfully unaware of how money and politics and policy interconnect in the real world. The loss of Sandra Day O'Connor, who had been in politics, run and won elections, and participated in the down-and-dirty dynamic of legislative policymaking, left a huge vacuum on the Supreme Court--all of course underscoring the fact that the 5-4 Citizens United decision was not the Constitution speaking, but the power shift to a new narrow majority created only by her untimely retirement.

I know we will never return to an era like the 1950s when a majority of the members of the court had run for and won office. But it would be nice to have at least one member who had experienced something other than law school, a law firm, a post in the Justice Department or a cloistered court. As for the ethics process, I will continue to hope that in this challenging time, with populist anger on the rise just as money-driven distortions in lawmaking will accelerate, smart and sensible legislators like Reps. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) and Jo Bonner (R-Ala.) will start to assert themselves more in strengthening an ethics process that finally has two functional committee leaders and the credibility of an independent investigative arm. I hope they will find ways to make it clear to lawmakers that business as usual, including the temptation to tailor behavior to the narrow letter of the law and not the obvious standards of acceptable conduct, is not good enough in this brave new post-Citizens United world.

Norman J. Ornstein is a resident scholar at AEI.

Photo Credit: iStockphoto/james steidl

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