Sunday, April 09, 2006


Both Redhorse and John at Ohio 13 have weighed in on the Betty Sutton-Tom Saywer throwdown over Congressional junkets. Sutton has advanced five principles for reform legislation, including prohibiting members of Congress from taking trips on someone else’s dime (among other things) and smacked Sawyer for his travels when he was in Congress. Sawyer cracked back, Sutton backed up her statement with some links on her site about who sponsored some of Sawyer’s trips.

And by the way, it's refreshing to see the much-rumored behind-the-scenes Sawyer temper peek out for public view with his "She's small-minded/This is bullshit" blast.

So far, local bloggers are split with Redhorse declaring Sutton’s strategy sound, O13, good try, but might not take off. I’d love to just straight up break the tie, but we all know that’s not my style.

On the face I’d say O13 has a point that the issue doesn’t generally resonate, but Redhorse is right that this year, with everyone hearing about Bob Ney addressing Parliament from the 10th green at St. Andrews, things are different.

But I think Sutton’s charge misses the point a bit. It doesn’t miss the point in an “Oh, she is wrong” way, it misses it in a “Must dumb it down for the masses way.” The plain and simple claim for plain and simple folk is that lobbyists pay for the trips, they must be getting favors. In fact, what bothers me about most of the trips isn’t the graft, it’s the access. Basically, I think a junket worth a couple-thousand dollars is unlikely to sway a vote compared to hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars in campaign contributions.

But what these junkets do is give the sponsors a chance to lay out their point of view, put on their experts, make their arguments without any check. When Sawyer talks about going to seminars, working hard, and learning about issues, he may well be telling the truth. But what he is doing is learning about issues from the perspective of whoever puts the seminar together. In Washington the sessions in which members of Congress learn about issues go by a different name. They are not called seminars, they are called hearings.

Hearings are public. Hearings leave a permanent record. In hearings, the other side can try to get on the docket. In hearings the minority can subpoena witnesses. When there are hearings, those who aren’t heard can raise hell about it.

Does anyone really think Bob Taft forgot to report sixty golf excursions with Tom Noe because he gave Noe the keys to the candy store in exchange for a fistful of green fees? No. The point was that Noe had the Governor’s ear to himself for eighteen holes at a time over sixty times and didn't want that to be public knowledge.

Taft’s proposed law against taking gift of value ever (suggested name, the “Stop Me Before I Golf Again” Bill), perpetuates the idea that little gifts here and there are enough to buy an elected official. It also ignores the truly corrupting effect of campaign finance. But for those of us who like to dig a layer or two down (and if you aren’t such a person, you’ve wandered into the wrong blog by mistake) the real issue when you are talking about trips or meals is access; the real issue when you are talking about influence is campaign contributions.

In a campaign the distinction may be to subtle for mass consumption. But when we are talking about reforms to clean up government, we need to keep an eye on those balls. For example, a more effective reform may be to require detailed disclosure of contacts with industries affected by a member’s committee work -- maybe some variation on Sutton's third principle. The most effective reform for campaign finance that I have seen is public finance. But you already knew that.


Pounder said...

make it simple

No one can be paid to lobby. No one who lobby's a rep can give that a rep a campaign contribution.

I agree, public hearings are the best place for these things to take place