Thursday, April 19, 2018
Opinion

Ruth: Politics for fun and profit

It's called the Capital Beltway, the 64-mile I-495 roadway encircling Washington. But it would be more accurate to rename it the Capital Loophole to reflect that the nation's lawmakers never met an ethics reform they couldn't find a way around.

If you were among the 535 members of Congress, you could be perceived as one of the nation's more powerful political figures. After all, we need someone to blame. But the real juice in Washington can be found among the legions of congressional staffers who actually do most of the real work drafting legislation, preparing position papers and doing the heavy lifting to create the myth that their elected bosses know what they are doing.

The congressional minions are invaluable factotums — not just for the officeholder, but for Washington's large lobbying corps. First rule of Washington lobbying: It's not that important to have the ear of Sen. Haversham if you have his chief of staff or key legislative adviser on your speed dial.

This largely hidden network of back-room wheeler-dealers would be ripe for the exchange of — ahem — gratuities, for legislative services rendered on behalf of groups such as the Allied Institute of Organizations, Associations and Consortiums.

So in 2007 Congress acted boldly to create hard-hitting ethics reform that barred congressional supernumeraries from registering as lobbyists for at least one year after leaving their government service jobs. But in Washington, the language of ethics is more of a foreign tongue than Pashtun in the Scottish Highlands.

As the New York Times reported this week, at least 1,650 former congressional major domos registered as lobbyists within a year after they left their Capitol Hill employers. How could this be? How is it possible these folks could so blithely ignore the law? Forget unethical. Isn't this illegal?

Ah, but let us not forget, gentle reader, who crafted the ethics reform law in the first place — the very same congressional masterminds who would be most affected by its restrictions. This was a bit like a group of courtesans being tasked with authoring an antiprostitution statute.

There are enough loopholes, exceptions and carve-outs in the ethics reform law to make Spiro Agnew, the Chicago City Council and the Chris Christie administration weep with envy.

So how does the sham ethics reform law work? It's elegant in its duplicity.

For example, let's suppose you are chief of staff for Rep. Soprano, who chairs the all-important subcommittee that oversees the cologne industry. And it just so happens there is a vital bill pending in the committee regarding the importation of musk oil.

As fate would have it, your keen legislative skills have come to the attention of the International Institute for the Betterment of Musk Oil Research. And broad hints have been dropped that you have a bright, six-figure-plus future ahead of you advancing the critical cause of musk oil.

You are free to circumvent the existing lobbying restrictions immediately because you have insisted on being paid less than $130,000 working for the congressman — the very threshold that would trigger the yearlong sabbatical from engaging in lobbying activities.

Better yet, since you never actually served as a staffer on the smelly cologne committee but worked directly for the congressman's office or in the office of the House leadership, you can now legally fire up your lobbyist-issued American Express card.

When it comes to ethics deform, at long last we have stumbled into an area of Washington life in which true bipartisanship flourishes like an Old Faithful gusher of money. The New York Times analysis of congressional staffers deftly evading the charade of ethics rules cuts across Republican and Democratic lines. Inspiring is what it is.

Perhaps you are thinking this is an outrageous abuse of Potomac power. Something should be done! The revolving door of legalized bribery ought to be locked. Oh, gentle reader, you are so, so quaint.

Who would create more stringent ethics standards? And even if you found someone, by the time the new regulations were approved they would be more diluted than a cheap cocktail at a "gentleman's club."

With apologies to Barry Manilow, in Washington the insider trading players get to write the rules that make the whole world ca-ching.

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