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July 27, 2014

We will never end any and every corrupt political act foisted off on us by those who profit from politics. We cannot stop all these abuses in the back rooms between lobbyists and staff of representatives and senators and other power brokers. Back room deals are not made on Times Square with reporters at the ready; they are rather made with as little paper and other such trails as possible in order to escape detection (if anyone these days is looking). They do not call up local media to announce that ABC Corporation has just bribed Senator Smith, or hired his wife or son in an executive capacity, or (fill in the blank). They instead show up on talk shows, “discuss the issues” at think tank conclaves, and may even go to church in a great and ostentatious show of concern for the poor and love of the divine.
We have all heard stories of how lobbyists for the rich and corporate class provide politicians with free rides in their company jets, free golf outings, dinners (Abramoff even had a restaurant to hand out free eats) and lots of other freebies. These giveaways come at a cost, of course, since they provide a social setting for a “now you owe me” discussion of the donor’s position on upcoming legislation, how rules and regulations should be shaped (see the four-year stall and over a billion dollars spent by Wall Street banks in lobbying for and against rules and regulations stemming from passage of the Dodd-Frank Act) and other little amendatory tweaks to the internal revenue code, for instance, tweaks that may save such proponents a bundle while saddling the rest of us with the costs, tweaks that were agreed to in our absence in the back room. We have also seen politicians hire their spouses as fund-raisers and pay them a portion of the donations they raised, and as seen above, we are all familiar with stories of politicians whose family members are hired by the very groups who lobby them.
What is going on subverts the will of the people who elected such politicians in favor of the bought will of the few with deep pockets, and democracy suffers as a result. What to do? This situation cries out for TRANSPARENCY, and Professor David Cay Johnston has come up with a means of effecting transparency in political conduct (since it appears we will never do what we should have done long ago – publicly finance campaigns – a failure when added to the inane holdings of Citizens United and McCutcheon makes any possibility of campaign reform financing unlikely for the foreseeable future).
He proposes that we extend the franking privilege (free mail) to all expenses for members of Congress, allowing each such member to spend as much as he or she deems necessary to do his or her job on grounds that if we can imbue representatives and senators with the power to make laws, surely we can give them the authority to manage their own expense accounts, but with the following provisos: no more free trips, no more free meals, and no more gifts. Thus if a senator wants to go to Tahiti to check a sink behind a bar, go ahead, but be sure to give us the receipts with an explanation of the costs. We will collect the receipts from every elected representative monthly and post it all on the internet in a format that makes for easy analysis.
The professor would require that every dollar and every meeting must be disclosed and that we will pay for all of it, subject only to the usual penalties for embezzlement, the exclusive right of each body to judge the fitness of its own members and/or the decision by voters to oust a spendthrift. He opines that this is the way to move politics back toward the people and away from monied interests. Under his plan the penalties for taking anything – even a free shot of whiskey – should be swift, certain, and severe. He calls it zero tolerance for lawmakers.
He also thinks we should pay the real costs of maintaining two households, recognizing that it will cost a lot more in travel costs for a representative from Hawaii to go back and forth to Washington than one from Northern Virginia, for instance, who can drive home every night. He knows that his approach will cost us more in terms of increased congressional budget, but correctly asserts that it would save us far more by reducing the giveaways, the rigged rules and favors for the rich and powerful etc. He asks his readers to consider the billions of dollars these lawmakers give up for a few thousand in “campaign contributions” and other freebies described earlier here, rightly concluding that paying the real costs of Congress would be far cheaper than the dishonest system we have now.
I would go the professor one further. I would require that every such senator and representative, in addition to accounting to the penny for costs incurred in carrying out his/her public functions for publication on the internet, also be required to keep a record of everyone with whom he or she had a meeting during the preceding month along with a succinct written description of what the meeting was about and who the visitor represented, exempting only staff members, family and fellow elected members, and all of which would likewise be posted on the internet so that the voters know what their senators and representatives are doing, and with whom. Given the proposed expense account, generous salary, pension benefits, health care for members and their families and the fact that public business should be made public, keeping tabs on what our employees are doing is more than justified if we are going to get a handle on the current and rampant graft and corruption extant in the nation’s capital.
This, after all, is a representative democracy, and these people we send to Washington are representing us, not themselves, and we the represented are entitled to a running account of just how well our senators and representatives are carrying out their functions as public officials on our behalf so we can evaluate their performance(s) in order to know whether to retain or fire them in the next election.
Professor Johnston is right on the mark when he writes that we need a debate on making members of Congress into public servants instead of beggars for favors. I agree, and I would add that (in addition to the bribery and revolving door games played between regulators and regulated and other such improprieties just short of criminal definition being played out in both plain and hidden views) we need investigation by an independent commission armed with subpoena powers charged with rooting out graft and corruption in our legislative system.
By refusing to demand transparency in the detail of what our employees (aka representatives and senators) are doing on our behalf, we are encouraging the systematic graft and corruption so plainly apparent these days in their efforts on behalf of special interests at the expense of the democratic process. We elected them; the special interests did not (though it can be argued that their money did). As the old saw goes, we “brung them to the dance,” but they are dancing with someone else. We therefore need a means of evaluation of such a partner for future reference with a view toward not inviting such a faithless partner to future dances.
A transparency code could provide such a means. Let’s try it – nothing else is working. GERALD E

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