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Eight simple steps to Swiffer Congress

January 05, 2006|Jonathan Turley | JONATHAN TURLEY is a professor of public interest law at George Washington University.

AS ROBERT W. NEY gazed across St. Andrews' fabled golf course, he must have paused to take the measure of his rags-to-riches life. After all, he was a regular Joe who once scraped by on the salary of a low-level bureaucrat in Bellaire, Ohio (population 4,892; annual median income $19,480). Now he was in Scotland for a quick getaway -- at the finest hotels, the finest restaurants and at the world's most famous golf course.

And it didn't cost him a thing.

Ney is a member of the House of Representatives, and his trip was arranged by the now-infamous lobbyist Jack Abramoff, the central figure in a broadening scandal of influence peddling and bribery in Washington. Abramoff confessed to federal crimes this week and promised to cooperate against politicians who sold their offices for free vacations and sports tickets.

The fact is, such improprieties are all too common in Washington. The recent revelations about Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R-San Diego) add fuel to the fire. Cunningham left a paper trail of gifts such as a Rolls-Royce (and $17,890 in repairs), use of a corporate jet, silver candelabra, Persian carpets, a sofa, a sleigh bed and much more, all courtesy of the defense industry.

Although there are calls for reform, the smart money in Washington has to be on the long-armed lobbyists, not the short-memoried voters. Just in case anyone is serious, however, here are eight simple changes that would clean up Congress.

* Close the "outside income" loophole. Now, members of Congress routinely legislate in areas where they have direct and sizable financial interests. That's because the ethics code prohibition on outside income doesn't include money earned from investments, such as stocks.

Researchers at the University of Memphis found that 75% of randomly selected members had "stock transactions that directly coincided with [their] legislative activity." Another study showed that senators' investments outperformed those of "corporate insiders" by eight percentage points, a difference best explained by "insider information."

The way to deal with this problem is simple: Require members to put their investments into a blind investment portfolio or trust.

* Bar quid pro quo arrangements. Members accept sweetheart financial deals from individuals who then get generous government contracts and legislative perks. Some members have gotten no-interest loans; others have made 500% profit on deals in a few short years.

The simple solution is to force members to recuse themselves from any legislation or official action that benefits their business associates or immediate family members.

* Deter nepotism. Members have become increasingly bold in seeking offices and appointments for their children, siblings, spouses, etc. Again, the simple solution is total recusal. No member of Congress or his or her staff should be allowed to participate in any appointment or hiring of a family member.

* End family lobbying. Lobbyists aren't allowed to give money directly to members, so they routinely give it to members' spouses or children. How? They hire them. Dozens of children and spouses of members of Congress are working in Washington lobbying firms -- often with no pertinent experience or skills. Members should be barred from any involvement with legislation or from committee assignments that bear on issues a family member represents.

* End "educational" trips. A rule bars congressional junkets paid for by lobbyists, but as long as the lobbyist uses a shell "research" group and calls the vacations "educational," members can go, and take their families. All trips paid for by any outside group should be banned.

* Bar private-jet travel. Congress allows members to accept flights on private or corporate jets, often with lobbyists tagging along, if members reimburse those companies for the equivalent of a first-class ticket. The problem is that the value of such travel is far greater than a first-class ticket. Members should be required to reimburse for the total cost of a jet charter.

* Change the valuation of gifts. Members are supposed to accept no gifts worth more than $50, but it happens all the time. For example, the owner of a major basketball team reportedly valued tickets to his skybox at $49.50, at least when they were given to a member. The valuation of gifts should be independently calculated.

* Create a truly independent ethics office for both houses. With members in control of their own ethics rules, as is now the case, ethical behavior is just one more commodity to be traded in the political market. For example, when ethics charges were flying a few years ago, members simply agreed on a moratorium on such charges -- creating in effect an ethics-free zone for the corrupt.

These loopholes were maintained by members of both parties despite years of objections by outside groups. It's not that they didn't know how to govern ethically, they simply preferred not to, if given the choice.

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