Monday, November 28, 2005

Corporate Ethics vs Congressional Ethics, There Is a Difference

There is a sense of absolute wrong about various corporate misdoings and yet, somehow a kind of natural entitlement to money-contributions in the Congress. That’s always seemed strange to me because I would think it would be the other way ‘round.

If the major oil companies collude to set gasoline and heating-oil prices (and heaven knows, I would never claim that), then the result is a spike in their profitability and a slight dent in my pocketbook. But if these same companies go around a law here and a regulation there by (essentially) paying-off my Senator or Representative, then I have lost a very basic freedom to be fairly represented.

WestvirginiastripminingSlicing the tops off West Virginia’s most scenic mountain ranges to get cheap coal is an example. No one would approve of that disgrace but the coal companies. It doesn’t even provide jobs comparable to the lost income from a damaged tourist industry, the pollution of streams and rivers and the loss to all future generations for a trade-off to momentary commercial profit.

But it is done and I don’t want to point at that instance too severely because it’s not my point.

The facts are that we have had pay-offs at the Senate and House level ever since we have had a Senate and a House. Spin back through a couple centuries of the great tradition of political cartooning and that becomes evident. More presidents have probably been elected on ‘reform’ platforms than any other banner and they have all failed at the attempt or conveniently lost interest after their election. So, it is what it is and we try, through our muckraking press, to keep a lid on the most outrageous offenses.

EthicsshredderThat was then and this is now. Then was like mice in the kitchen, a periodic problem that a few traps can keep under control, something that can be lived with. Now is an avalanche that the Congress has encouraged and, indeed, provided for under the misrepresentation of ethical behavior. The mice have invented traps that keep them from getting caught.

Campaign contribution laws they call them. They have replaced the old direct hand-off by a complicated series of lateral passes. As long as someone on staff fills in the correct column and checks the proper boxes, the pay-off becomes legal. It should not be and certainly is in no way ethical, but it is legal and, should anyone ever point out the disparity, the everybody-does-it defense prevails.

That’s how Teddy Kennedy happens to have an $8 million campaign war-chest. I keep dinging away on poor old Teddy (only one of those adjectives being correct) because he is such an icon of respect. Forty years in the Senate. White-haired Teddy doesn’t take bribes, he’s an honest man and there’s not a speck of irony in that statement. But he is a wonderfully non-partisan example of the scope of the problem.

NationalcapitolbuildingLobbyists have the right as well as the obligation to represent issues that bear on legislation, whether that be for commercial or civil purposes. No legislator can possibly be versed in the nuance of limitless issues coming before him or her. Without lobbyists for and against, the job would be substantially undoable, a roll of dice. It’s where money changes hands that I part ways with the everybody-does-it defense. Arguing that payment under-the-table is unethical is what got us to accepting payment above the table, as long as it's reported.

Lobbyist explanations, pro and con, inform and enlighten legislators so they are better able to judge the issues. Money bribes them. It’s as simple as that. We presently have a bribed legislature and it’s now a matter of whether we commit the error of omission by allowing that bribery to continue.

For more comments on Washington at work, see my personal web site.