Commentary: Ethics Reform Under Scrutiny

, Brittany Fortier, Leave a comment

During his campaign last year, President Obama said that he was “running to tell the lobbyists in Washington that their days of setting the agenda are over.”  With numerous questionable Cabinet appointees, 32 czars (and counting) who do not have to answer to Congress, and scandals involving organizations affiliated with the President (e.g., Acorn), how effective has Obama been at keeping his promise?

Norm Eisen, Special Counsel for Ethics and Government Reform at the White House, spoke about President Obama’s sweeping ethics reform plan at the Center for American Progress (CAP) on September 14, 2009.  It seems that supporters of the President’s preemptive war on lobbyists are already deeming the program to be a (to coin a well-known phrase) “mission accomplished.”

Eisen acknowledged that folks at CAP “don’t always agree” with him concerning ethics reform issues, but he nevertheless insisted that the “backbone of the stimulus lobbying program is disclosure.”  He further reminded attendees that the White House’s official blog and other agency sites have been reporting lobbying contacts under the purported “interest of transparency.”

Gushing over President Obama’s “strong and profound idealism” as well as an “equally strong practicality” concerning the ethics reform agenda, Eisen referred to the Obama administration’s regulations the “toughest in the history of American government.”

Eisen added that it is “not an accident that the first months, first eight months, of our administration have not been characterized by some of the public and distracting scandals that earlier administrations have sometimes had to confront…”

For those of you who may be wondering, yes, Eisen actually said that with a straight face.

It turns out that not all attendees at the CAP event were feeling the love.  Eisen found himself on the hot seat when asked to address concerns that such regulations were simply an attack on lobbyists themselves and not to the special interests they represent.

One attendee accused the administration of “deliberately taking on the lobbyists because [Obama] does not really want to take on the special interests.”  Eisen urged the questioner to “stay tuned” to see just how the President will take on special interests, adding that it would be more “fair” to grade the administration after the first term is over.

The attendee, saying that he was hoping for a “midcourse adjustment,” was not convinced.

William Luneburg, Professor at the University of Pittsburg School of Law said that “if there’s any profession that’s below lawyers in public esteem, it’s the profession of lobbying.”

Joseph Minarik, Senior Vice President and Director of the Research Committee for Economic Development (RCED), insisted that the “United States’ preeminence

in the world is not preordained,” adding that “if we aren’t doing what we need to do in addressing [these] public issues, our leadership can evaporate.”

Bewailing what he called a “dysfunctional campaign finance system,” Minarik insisted that lobbying “drives a lot” of wasteful expenditures and has been allowed to “take over [Washington].”  Evidently, the McCain-Feingold campaign finance bill just hasn’t done enough.

“People are offended by earmarks. The Congress is given the power of the purse by the Constitution; there’s no necessary way to say that when a member of Congress directs resources that he or she is exercising poorer judgment than when the president of the United States directs resources in an appropriations request,” he said.  “But appearances matter.”

Yet another audience member disagreed, calling Minarik’s critical words for lobbyists “disparaging.”

Interestingly, when House Republicans demanded a moratorium on Congressional earmarks back in February 2008, all but seven Democrats voted against it.  Still, CAP wants us to believe that in this new era of “hope and change,” transparency rules the day.

“There are ways to address this problem,” Minarik continued.  “We need better disclosure. We need a process of regular order where rules in the Congress are open; there is debate; there is the opportunity to offer amendment, where you don’t have self-executing rules but rather votes are taken in the open. Conferences should meet publicly…We need a budget process again, badly.”

Minarik also would like to see changes in the Congressional schedule, including “long legislative weeks” that would keep members in Washington longer.  One can only wonder if Minarik would have supported such “long legislative weeks” back in August of 2008 when Republicans stayed behind as a “Guerilla Congress” to find a solution to rising energy prices.

Another major issue in this debate is how to define what a lobbyist actually is.  William Luneburg encouraged a more “workable” definition than the one currently offered by the Lobbying Disclosure Act (LDA), saying that the problem with the definition is that it is too “arbitrary.”

“When does an activity, lobbying activity does turn on the intent? Was it intended to support lobbying contacts?” he asked.  “[The LDA] definition has now been incorporated in congressional gift rules and now the Obama initiatives restricting lobbyists… As a lawyer you learn, or should learn early that the same word or phrase, can – should be defined differently in different contexts or things can go seriously awry.”

Luneberg added that if the Supreme Court invalidates a corporate ban on campaign contributions (as it is expected to do this term), he hopes that the Supreme Court will likewise be more “receptive” to expanding disclosures of such contributions.

Thomas Susman, the Director of Government Affairs Office for the American Bar Association (ABA), said that he does not want lobbyists to be the “scapegoats for failures of Congress and administrative initiatives…”

“I’ve been in Washington for about 40 years now; I’ve never seen a lobbyist drop a bill in the hopper in either house of Congress. I’ve never seen the lobbyist vote on legislation or an amendment in either house; I’ve never seen their name on legislation,” he said. “The notion that somehow everything evil that happens is attributable to lobbyists seems to me deserves at least occasional counterweight.”

Brittany Fortier is an intern at the American Journalism Center, a training program run by Accuracy in Media and Accuracy in Academia.