Congress Can't Police Themselves

by Brian Johnson on October 5, 2009

ScandalRecently, we’ve printed a number of articles concerning the need for Congress to change the way they do business and the overall difficulty of putting such changes into effect.  The current laws concerning politicians and the disclosure of funds raised by lobbyists is a perfect example of just what happens when Congress decides to police its own excesses.

First, some explanation.  Lobbyists want the ear of politicians so that they can convince them to vote their way on some issue.  How do they convince politicians that their side is in the right?  Strong rhetoric?  Sound argument?  No.  They use money and campaign contributions.  They, essentially, attempt to buy votes.

If you believe that this system amounts to bribery and is altogether unethical, then you are not alone.  In fact, many Americans believe that their politicians should decide their vote based on what’s right and not on who’s paying (or how much).  So many Americans cried foul against this practice, in fact, that Congress passed laws requiring members of Congress to disclose funds donated to their campaigns by lobbyists.  In other words, Congress passed laws to police themselves.

The resultant laws are so lenient that they have very little effect and, according to AP writer Sharon Theimer, amount to little more than an honor system.  If the funds are less than $16,000, they don’t have to be reported at all.  Any more than that and they only have to be reported if the money is physically handled by the lobbyist, or if the lobbyist is officially recognized for their fund raising by the politicians for whom they are campaigning.  If, for instance, the lobbyists are part of another organization (like the organization for whom the lobbyist works) then that organization can deliver the funds without a politician needing to disclose their source.

In the end, the laws do very little of anything.  With so many loopholes, politicians avoid reporting any funds given to them by lobbyists even as they make lobbyist social events a part of their daily routine.  According to Theimer, only about 24 lawmakers even report that they’ve accepted lobbyist money at all.

This debacle is what happens when Congress regulates itself.  A law meant to make Congress more ethical is designed to be so laughably ineffective that the spirit of the law can be broken daily and publicly, while technically, the letter of the law is maintained.  There is no change to the manner in which Congress conducts business.  No change to the manner in which Congress raises funds.  In essence, all the law does is make Congress look as though they want the system reformed without actually forcing anyone to reform…and that’s just campaign finance.  Can we really expect, looking at this as our example, that Congress has the capacity to make changes on other really important issues that deal with Congressional procedure (e.g. piggybacking, voting on bills that have not been read, etc.) ? Clearly the answer is no.  Whatever reform needs to be imposed on the Congressional system, it will need to be motivated from outside that system.

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