Reform Congress, not lobbyists

Jewish groups should oppose 'ethics legislation' that will make the system less democratic.

capitol 88 (photo credit: )
capitol 88
(photo credit: )
Every now and then, a passion to reform the way Congress does business sweeps the land. Fueling this is usually a particular scandal and hunger on the part of the opposition party to embarrass the corruption of the majority. It's been 12 years since the Savonarolas of the House Republican caucus roasted the Democratic leadership over their peccadillos (does anyone remember the House bank scandal?), and then swept into power. The only real difference between then and now is that today it's Republican blood in the water, with the Democrats trying to pick off their foes' leaders, such as former House majority leader Tom DeLay. The poster child for this current rage for reform is Jack Abramoff, an egregious Republican lobbyist. Though his scams are little understood by the public - and likely to be repeated in the future by more careful Washington grifters - what most people have heard of is that he hosted some leaders (including DeLay) on a Scottish golfing junket. Despite the fact that the ocean of money that flows in and out of the Treasury has more to do with the hardball politics of Congress than with minor perks like travel, the self-styled forces of righteousness are currently busy planning reforms to forestall the possibility that DeLay's successors will ever get to tee off at St. Andrews. But like most such reforms, it remains highly unlikely that such a ban will make what humorist P.J. O'Rourke once aptly titled America's "parliament of whores" more honest men and women. OPPOSING ANY measure presented as ethical - no matter how ultimately pointless or even counterproductive it might be - is generally a fool's errand. But it is precisely onto this perilous ground that some are prepared to tread. In particular, pro-Israel groups which have spent the last few decades schlepping American leaders to Israel to see the situation in the Middle East up close and personal are worried about the ban. That's a risky position for Jewish groups who are always, and often justifiably, concerned about being singled out as too powerful by anti-Semites and other Israel-haters. The success of the pro-Israel community in educating Washington about the justice of Israel's cause - coupled with the fact that aiding Israel is very much in America's interest - has made it very unpopular in some quarters. In addition, some Jews are loath to label the reform legislation as bogus because of Abramoff's public identity as an Orthodox Jew, though that had nothing to do with his crimes and doesn't distinguish him from other rogues who professed other faiths. But the answer here is that these proposals are not only wrongheaded on the specifics, scapegoating lobbying is itself a misunderstanding of the real problems afflicting the United States government. As for the travel issue, congressional junkets, like congressional salaries, remain a sore point for most voters. Most of us can't stand the idea of the country being run by career politicians who have never held an honest job in their lives living high off the hog on our tax checks. But there are a couple of problems with this impulse. One is that - at least as far as the travel ban is concerned - there's nothing noble about having a Congress that knows little about the world to then go and manage foreign-policy expenditures. Seeing the facts on the ground makes a difference. A lawmaker with the hutzpa to speak on or vote about what Israel should or shouldn't do ought to see the size of the country before being asked to compromise on its security measures. A travel ban would make it much harder for that to happen. BUT WOULDN'T such a ban make it more difficult for corrupters like Abramoff to operate? Don't be ridiculous! These people are rolling the dice for big payoffs on government expenditures, in which trips to Scotland are chump change. Yet for all the sound and fury expended on the question of congressional travel, it's just a blip on the screen of the Capitol's real business: the ability of individual Senate and House members to direct large sums of money to their states and districts. Through an arcane trick of the trade called an "earmark," members can attach financing for every form of local project imaginable onto major spending bills. According to the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service, the number of earmarks in 2005 amounted to 15,877 different items that cost the taxpayers $47.4 billion. That is double the amount spent on earmarks the year the Democrats were routed from office in 1994. Earmarks can be for good causes or silly ones, but whether wise or foolish, they feather the beds of senators and representatives who use them to prove to voters that they're bringing home the bacon. Americans would all probably be a lot better off if the government didn't confiscate so much of our income in the first place, and then have to wait for politicians to throw us back some crumbs. But pending a real reform of earmarks, what can any group do but lobby? Lobbyists are routinely portrayed as rapacious Huns in the Abramoff mode. But most are merely the representatives of citizens individually too poor or lacking in influence to compete for the favor of the House and the Senate. The problem isn't that an army of these lobbyists lays siege to Congress; the problem is a system that allows Congress to pit groups against each other and reward those it favors with billions. What the earmark system has done is turn everyone in this country - farmers and urban commuters alike - into special-interest groups who compete to get back a small percentage of the money government took from them in the first place. Like the spectacularly ill-conceived campaign-finance legislation that has been inflicted by the well-meaning on the nation, the proposals for lobbying reform would not make the system more democratic. They would make it less so, since lobbying by groups is one of the few ways citizens have of getting any attention from legislators. THE RIGHT to petition Congress ought to be treated as being as sacred as the right of free speech. But, somehow, the ethics crowd - and partisans of both major parties who seek to manipulate the issue - have managed to make both those rights seem illegitimate. That's why Jewish groups - and anybody else with the temerity to say the ethics emperors have no clothes - would be in the right to oppose the anti-lobbying craze. For Jews to shrink from advocacy on this measure out of fear of being singled out only highlights the illegitimacy of any cause that seeks to make it harder to speak out on public issues. It's just plain wrong to restrict a citizen's ability to talk with those in power. If there is anything that needs reformation, it is the way the United States government uses the power it has given itself. The writer is executive editor of the Jewish Exponent in Philadelphia.