Friday, January 6, 2006

“The Farmers Are Complaining!” “Let Us Reform Lobbying.”

A recent biography of Otto von Bismarck mentions that every summer his assistant would come to him with the news: “The farmers are complaining.” Either the growing season was too hot or too cool; too much rain or insufficiently moist; when the weather was perfect, the complaint was that produced such heavy growth as to take too much out of the soil. Bismarck tired of these alarmist reports and ordered that he not be bothered with any wailing about the farmers’ complaints. “When the farmers stop complaining,” he said, “tell me for the nation will be in trouble.”

Today the news from Washington is that the Justice Department and news media are complaining because of Jack Abramoff. He is the operator who swindled certain Indian tribes with huge fees and secured donations of soft money for the political needs of a large litany of Senators and Congressmen on both sides of the aisle. Liberal media are hopeful that Abramoff’s connection with Tom DeLay will keep DeLay from returning as Republican House majority leader from which post he trounced the media’s favored liberals repeatedly. That’s all the furor about Abramoff is: enthusiastic schadenfreud that could drum DeLay out of politics. The real reason DeLay is in so much trouble with liberals is that once he became majority leader he passed the word to K street lobbying firms that he would expect they would hire Republican lobbyists. They did. Lobbying favors have and are being distributed to journalists (trips, dinners and honoraria) and removing the old guard of ex-Democratic officer-holders and staffers on K street rankles. There’s only one reform that would be effective and liberals as well as most conservatives won’t embrace it [See below].

The other day when I watched Rahm Emanuel on TV raising his eyes to heaven to excoriate Republican sleaze I really thought this Sammy Glick who did defensive stand-ups on TV after his boss Bill Clinton was caught with his pants down literally in the company of Monica Lewinsky, was in danger of being struck by a lightning bolt from an angry God who couldn’t stand any further hypocrisy. It didn’t happen; perhaps next time Emanuel is moved to urge purification of the political climate. Or, possibly God is saving his anger for the next enunciation of personal purity from the ex-Keating Five Vietnam hero as opportunist, John McCain.

As one who lobbied Washington and other places for Quaker for 27 years, let me remind you that strenuous advocacy was pursued by such giants as Hamilton, Samuel Adams and Hancock (some, with the exception of Hamilton, while they were in public life) followed down the ages by examples from Lincoln (the Illinois Central lawyer cum state legislator) to the present. Should more “reforms” be adopted? Sure, why not? They will just spur the creativity of lobbyists to work around them. In just my lifetime—although I will allow that some of you will equate this to the dawn of the Paleolithic age—the climate of political reform has increased enormously. As I look back on it, the climate has improved so noticeably that one day I wondered why we weren’t overcome by guilt and remorse in the old days. We weren’t because we thought we were reformers, having followed the generation of Johnny Maragon a 5 percenter (who served time for bribery and who I remember working in the House Folding Room as a little old man). Maragon was the big fish during the Truman era along with Tommy (the Cork) Corcoran and Ben Cohen who spanned the FDR through Ford era, garnering millions as lawyers working for industries to undo the reforms they had concocted as FDR staffers.

Nobody gave a thought about further reform in the `50s because the reforms we were working with had been invented by reformers from the sacrosanct FDR age. The Harding era featured cash donations and sneaky corporate funding intermixed with campaigns. Not so with us! We were the purists! When I was a congressional aide, beginning in 1958, we were expected to (a) do our legislative and case work, wringing concessions from the feds for our incumbents’ political benefit; (b) all the while encourage people we did favors for to give to our bosses, (c) travel back to our states where we ran reelection campaigns for our bosses, the travel at our own expense (reform) but our salaries paid by the House; and (d) design brochures and write radio and TV commercials for their reelection—all on the people’s time. The reforms were scrupulously watched over by Manny Cellar (Rep. Emanuel Cellar, [D-NY], chairman of House Judiciary).

I was told that the “book” figuratively speaking was written twenty years prior to my coming on as a House employee by one Lyndon Baines Johnson, hailed as the model congressional staffer, having been elected as “Speaker” of what was then called “the Little House” composed of House staffers. Ostentatious gifts to Congressmen were verboten, courtesy of reforms that were implemented to correct the Truman scandals where his aide, General Harry Vaughan, received a deep freeze from Emerson Electric in St. Louis.

Staffers of the “new reform” Congress in the age just before mine, would meet and play Congressmen in the House chamber when the incumbents were away, Johnson perfecting his swagger down the aisle as he was famously to do as Senate majority leader. My then mentor on the staff was a little man who, though Republican, idolized what Johnson could do for his constituents. We all sought to match it which we couldn’t. As I reflect on it, reform was definitely needed and much overdue, but without it, the nation did not lose a beat. Oh, there was one grievous instance of immortal turpitude: Ike’s Sherman Adams receiving a vicuna coat from old patron Bernard Goldfine in New Hampshire.

One of my favorite columnists, the New York Times’ David Brooks, who should know better, just issued a broadside calling for reforms after talking with that paragon Newt Gingrich, who had conducted an extra-curricular affair with a staffer (whom he married as wife number three) now hoping to run for president. One of the rules would be not holding lobbying fund-raisers within the District of Columbia. Now that’s really hitting the issue hard, would you say? It would be a grand excursion for lobbyists to enplane to Cedar Rapids and then Milwaukee for fund-raisers. What they would do is schedule a bunch of fund-raisers in Palm Beach and then Palm Springs and distribute the swag later. It’d be a boon for K street lobbyists to get out of town. Another reform: no overseas golf outings paid by so-called no-profits.

The only reform worth consideration is not embraced by Brooks or The New York Times or Common Cause: it is congressional term limits. Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) has proved to me during his term-limited service in the House that the limitation emboldens an incumbent who knows he won’t be around long to effect needed changes. You want to reform the budget process, the earmarks? Term limits will do it. And you don’t need a law: it can be voluntary. In Illinois the only term-limited candidate I know is Dave McSweeney, running for 8th district Congress against Melissa Bean. On that score alone, he deserves election. Do the media like term limits? Of course not: they like careerists in Congress. Read the list of bon mots given to Michigan’s Democratic John Dingell who has marked 50 years in the House, following in the same seat as held by his father for 30 years. Dingell was the leading House regulator when that body was Democratic (and is married to a lobbyist for GM).

Very few Congressmen have endorsed term limits. When a Congressman breaks the term limit pledge that helped get him elected, like Washington’s George Nethercutt who beat Speaker Tom Foley on the issue or like Illinois’ John Shimkus, they ought to be defeated. As the media-induced cry for “reform” continues, let us say in paraphrase of Otto von Bismarck: don’t bother me with this talk unless you are willing to endorse term limits—but when “reform” does not become the cry of liberals and the media, please let me know. It’s a staple just like the regular headline that stands in type for use whenever needed: Pope Urges Peace.

1 comment:

  1. we need people who can quote Bismark! That's a keeper.