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February 28, 2006

Stop Complaining – there’s something WE CAN DO about K Street

A Congressperson’s website complains about K Street and Big Lobbyists. But does that site offer a solution? No.

Fortunately, this Congressperson believes the First Amendment means what it says, “Congress shall make no law… abridging the freedom of speech, or the freedom of the press, or right of the people to peaceably assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances….” Unlike McCain, Feingold, Shays, and Meehan, this Member of Congress doesn’t want to violate the First Amendment. That’s great!

However, this particular Congressperson is also aware that there’s a solution to the troubles of K Street. And this solution doesn’t involve violating the rights of the American people. But it would restrict the rights of those who work with this Congressperson on Capitol Hill.

Amazingly, despite his principles, this Congressperson wants nothing to do with this novel idea.

The idea? The Read the Bills Act.

Many of the “earmarks” that K Street seeks (people in the fruited plains call them, “pork”) are slid into bills, almost anonymously, in Conference Committees.

Let’s go back to High School Civics. You might well have been sleeping because it was so boring. If so, here’s what you missed:

• When the House and Senate pass their versions of a particular proposal, most of the time there are differences. The differences must be worked out somehow before the bill can be sent to the President to be signed into law. So…
• Both chambers send a delegation of members to meet and iron out the differences. This is called a Conference Committee.
• Conference Committee meetings are usually held in virtual secrecy. In fact, the majority caucus frequently “pre-meets” to script out how they want the meeting to work. Transcripts of these meetings are rarely kept.

In this setting, no one can know who . . .slid the earmark into the bill. And with bills sometimes thousands of pages long, very, very few people know what slithered into the bill at the last minute – and probably none of those “in the know” were actually elected.

Often, the K Street lobbyists are waiting outside these conferences in what they used to call Gucci Gulch (circa 1980s: they called it Gucci Gulch because the lobbyists couldn’t go in these meetings, but they could be found waiting outside, standing there in their designer suits and expensive shoes). Sometimes, staffers come out and consult with them.

Unless you’re opposed to the First Amendment, your complaint shouldn’t be with the lobbyists.

That’s right – what the lobbyists are doing is quite American. And given that our government doles out so much money – nearly all of which is unconstitutionally allocated – we shouldn’t be surprised that the lobbyists are on the scene to ask for some of that money. The problem isn’t that people lobby for government favors, it’s that there are any favors available at all. A federal government that abided by its Constitutional limits would have no favors to confer.

Now, every piece of reform legislation presently offered by some member of Congress to deal with this problem – AND I MEAN EVERY SINGLE BILL – is flawed for two reasons.

1) Each bill restricts the First Amendment rights of Americans to participate in their democracy. John McCain has a proposal that actually seeks to curb “grassroots lobbying.” But in a democracy, isn’t participation by the grassroots good? …desirable? Can we all afford to go to Washington to “petition for redress of grievances” if we cannot “peaceably assemble?” Can’t we send someone to speak for us?
2) Each bill focuses on demand, not supply. That is, each proposal writes new rules for those who lobby, not those who are lobbied. New and innovative “get-arounds” will be the result. Lobbying activity will go underground – be harder to detect. THE BILL WILL FAIL TO ACHIEVE ITS STATED OBJECTIVES and before we know it, the politicians will be back proposing even more rules of the variety that failed us in the first place.

Demand is not the problem. Everyone has the right to ask Congress to do things. The problem is that Congress should not have the power to supply government favors to fill all of these demands. As long as Congress is making such a big pie, there will be well-orchestrated attempts to get slices of it. The supply of un-constitutional government favors is the real source of the problem.

Consider this. Would a Congressperson be willing to sit through hours of listening to the reading of earmark after earmark, special favor after special favor? Congress passed 13,998 earmarks in 2005. What if there was a law (not an easily avoidable “rule”) that required Congress to make members sit for a reading of all these earmarks?

Assuming that each earmark required a minute to read, and Congress was in session as much as they are right now, then, conservatively, they’d be required to spend more than an hour every day sitting in the chamber listening to the reading of the pork – that is if they want to keep up the current pace. Do you think they’d want to have 13,998 earmarks if they had to pay the price of listening to all of them being read? I think not. I also think that if they did hear these earmarks being read many in Congress was be outraged by a large number of these pork proposals.

Now consider this. What if there was a seven day waiting period (after the Congressional reading was complete) before Congress was able to vote on the bill? And what if during those seven days the bill was posted on the Internet for every watchdog group, talk-show host, think-tank, reporter, and American citizen to read? Do you think the Members of Congress would want to get caught with their hands in the cookie jar?

Under those conditions, how many bits of pork do you think Congress would be sliding into these bills?

The Read the Bills Act, which is drafted but currently “unsponsored,” is the real solution to the pork problem and the lobbying scandal. It would require a reading of every word of every bill by the clerk, consuming House and Senate time. It would require a waiting period and Internet posting so the public could see the final product.

No longer could lobbyists and members of Congress “sneak” their unpopular provisions in at the last minute!

So why isn’t there a rush to sponsor this bill? Well, I humbly suggest that anyone in Congress complaining about K Street – anyone hurling around the name of Jack Abramoff – but refusing to sponsor the Read the Bills Act, isn’t serious about the problem. They’re just telling you what they think you want to hear. And they’ll be quite happy to give you a solution that further restricts your right to hound and pester them about how they do their jobs. We cannot let this happen. We must keep up the pressure on Congress to pass RTBA.

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