Ethics in lobbying law fails the stink test, needs update
Given the low esteem that most people hold toward the U.S. Congress, it’s hardly surprising that many Americans have come to expect unethical, shady and seedy shenanigans as the norm among a sizeable chunk of the members and staff of the chief lawmaking body of this nation.
In fact, a recent Rasmussen poll found 60 percent of Americans believe most members of Congress are willing to sell their votes for cash or campaign contributions.
At the center of many of these congressional sell-your-soul deals stand lobbyists. Loopholes in ethics law governing lobbyists exposed by The New York Times earlier this week only feed public cynicism. As The Times reported Sunday, many former senior staff members of U.S. representative and senators are grossly violating the intent of a 2007 law that requires a waiting period before they can lobby their buddies in Congress. The law imposes a one-year ban for senior staff and House members, and two years for senators.
Lobbying, of course, does not always stink. In fact, many nonprofit groups and activist organizations lobby members of Congress in free exercise of their First Amendment rights free of charge to advance legislation befitting their causes. However, it sometimes becomes foul when special interests hire well-connected professional advocates to try to tip the balance in favor of their oftentimes narrow causes for personal or corporate gain. The tighter the connection is between lobbyist and legislator, the greater the likelihood for unethical and nefarious behavior.
That’s why Congress enacted the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act of 2007 But as The Times’ special report illustrated, that law’s purpose of slowing the revolving door between Capitol Hill and K Street (the address of choice of some of the most influential lobbying organizations in Washington, D.C.) has failed.
A new study by the Sunlight Foundation found that the number of active lobbyists with prior government experience has nearly quadrupled since 1998, rising to 1,846 in 2012. These revolving-door lobbyists, mostly from Capitol Hill, were largely responsible for the monumental growth in lobbying revenue, which increased from $703 million in 1998 to $1.32 billion in 2012.
Many former congressmen themselves exit the doors of the U.S. Capitol and quickly enter the doors of swank, big-bucks lobbying groups. That group includes Republican Phil English who represented the Shenango Valley in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1995 to 2009. Since 2009, he’s been perched among senior staff members of the Arrent Fox LLC lobbying firm. A greater number of senior staff members of congressional representatives have been using that same revolving door at an increasingly frenetic pace.
TOO MANY SKIRT THE LAW
The Times, however, provided many cogent examples of how former congressional staffers slyly skirt the 2007 law’s required “cooling-off period” of separation between Congress and lobby. The major loopholes through which they wiggled included playfulness with their income levels and coy third-party contacts. As a result, the staffers gain undue and immediate influence over the same individuals with whom they’ve worked and oftentimes socialized for years.
We doubt that the revolving door can ever be completely stopped, but the speed at which it moves must be slowed. Revising the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act to close the loopholes would help the six-year-old law live up to its noble-sounding name and might clear just a little bit of the stink that far too many Americans still smell enveloping our nation’s capital.