I actually wrote this thing a couple of days ago because I was tired of all the hype about lobbying reform, which I expect will make much less difference to the way business is done than the hype about it suggests. Like pay as you go, it’s something that makes good headlines, but the question is always whether the people who pass it will live up to the expresse ideals. I didn’t post it immediately because I couldn’t find a good analysis of the bill or any nice incidents to link to.
That is, until this morning, when MSNBC.com sent me a late Christmas gift. In an article titled So much for congressional lobby reform? they tell us about a great democratic celebration, similar to an earlier Republican celebration when they were in the same position. All of which goes to show that the lobbyists and the congressman are still going to be working closely together.
Which leads me to what I think is the only possible solution: Elections. Elections would seem to be the basis of a republican form of government, but it seems that the basic responsibility of citizen’s to inform themselves and to vote are fading further and further into the background. But we already have elections and they don’t seem to work, you say? Indeed we do. But if elections don’t work, nothing else will. If we as voters don’t start turning out the people who behave in a corrupt manner, there is nothing that will do it.
What will happen, of course, is lots of things that create headlines, so that we’ll feel like something has been done. That’s why laws are named as they are: “No Child Left Behind,” “A Bill to Simplify . . .,” etc. Nobody names a bill “Lots of regulations to make a marginal change, at best,” though that would be closer to the truth.
Campaign finance reform, some aspects of lobbying reform, term limits, and other similar projects are often hailed as great benefits for democracy. We have some of it in the first 100 hour efforts of the new Democratic leadership in congress. But I think we need to ask whether passage of new rules is the proper response to violations of the old rules, and whether restricting people’s freedom is a proper response to a lack of responsibility. (See House Democrats Prepare to Tighten Lobbyist Rules.)
I think it’s quite appropriate to place limitations on what elected leaders can accept, but I’m extremely worried about restrictive reporting requirements on lobbying organizations, and other methods that tend to restrict political commentary or restrict access of citizens to their government. In the flurry of reform legislation, one thing that seems to be neglected is that we’re talking about people who were caught, and very frequently punished for their violation of the old rules. Under those circumstances, I suspect the new packages have more to do with making people feel that their legislators are doing something substantive than with actually accomplishing anything new.
I received an e-mail alert from the Traditional Values Coalition. The reason I bring up their alert in particular is that TVC is an organization with which I almost never agree. In fact, this particular alert is typically hysterical on a number of issues. In general, I do not wish the TVC well in their efforts. But I absolutely do not want to prevent them from having access to elected leaders to lobby. In reality, however, I doubt that lobbying groups will be more than inconvenienced.
I’m going to be watching the results of this legislation. It’s hard to work through all the details and people disagree on what will apply and what will not. For example, will reporters who work for companies that have lobbyists still be permitted to go to lunch with congressional staffers? Some interpretations suggest not. The real question is this: Two years from now, or four or six, will we be able to say honestly that congress is less corrupt, more responsive and responsible?