Whose Ethics Need Reform?

A common tactic of politicians running for federal office, even used by current officeholders, is to run "against Washington."  As part of this tactic, politicians often adopt an "us vs. them" rhetoric with "us" being the people and "them" being so-called Washington special interests.

Registered lobbyists are naturally targeted as leaders of the Washington establishment that prevent the people’s true will from getting done.  Candidates looking to present evidence of their work on behalf of the people are now citing the passage of the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act of 2007 as proof.

For example, during last night’s Democratic presidential debate, Senator Barack Obama repeatedly stressed that his administration would focus on families and not "special interests."  He tied this pledge to his work on the HLOGA, ostensibly making the claim that the passage of this law allows politicians to now ignore lobbyists and focus on families.

Digging slightly below the surface, however, the assumptions behind the Senator’s staunch position that lobbyists are the root cause of the malfunction in Congress is disturbing.  Even setting aside the constitutional rights of all citizens to petition their government, and the diversity of interests groups represented by lobbyists, the blatant distrust that supporters of HLOGA have in their colleagues warrants further discussion.

The Honest Leadership and Open Government Act further restricted the relationship between politicians and lobbyists, particularly in regards to meals, gifts, and travel.  At the heart of this legislation, however, is the idea that most politicians can easily be bought and need this extra step to protect themselves against already illegal acts, such as bribery.  It is unsettling that our elected officials have such little faith in their own ethical standards that the distinction between what meals are acceptable to eat with whom must be debated in Congress.  Perhaps our elected officials leading the charge to "reform" ethics should refocus their priorities on the family rather than legislation that cracks down on the right to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

The truth is that such rhetoric ignores reality.  There is often gridlock in Washington because there are a plethora of meritorious proposals, on the right and the left, about which direction to take the country.  That competing interests would lobby the government was recognized in Federalist #10

In Federalist 10, Madison recognized that stamping out competing factions is a cure that is worse than the ill:

"Liberty is to faction what air is to fire, an aliment without which it instantly expires. But it could not be less folly to abolish liberty, which is essential to political life, because it nourishes faction, than it would be to wish the annihilation of air, which is essential to animal life, because it imparts to fire its destructive agency."

The Center for Competitive Politics is now the Institute for Free Speech.