Are you sitting down? Hear this: "Congress members back legislation that could benefit themselves, relatives" (No way!)
"Ethics rules are supposed to make things clear and transparent. They should not require the public or the media to go digging around to make the connections."
-- Harvard Prof. Dennis Thompson, quoted by WaPo's
Kimberly Kindy, David S. Fallis, and Scott Higham
Kimberly Kindy, David S. Fallis, and Scott Higham
In case you missed the story in yesterday's Washington Post, let me caution again that you should be sitting down when you read this. And if you're on medication, for goodness' sake don't try operating heavy machinery afterward. Here's the headline again:
Congress members back legislation that could benefit themselves, relatives
I hear you all gasping, "No way!" Why, our congressfolk only make those painful periodic pilgrimages to our nation's capital for the purpose of transacting the nation's business! Certainly not to pass legislation to line their own and their kinfolks' pockets.
I know it's a pathetically easy target, this business of congressional self-enrichment. But sometimes when they lob 'em in slow 'n' fat like this, you've just gotta take your whack all the same. So here's how the WaPo team begins their report:
A California congressman helped secure tax breaks for racehorse owners -- then purchased seven horses for himself when the new rules kicked in.Now if this rings a bell for longer-time DWT readers, it may be because it sounds suspiciously like the activities that Howie has reported from such stellar legislators as Alaska Rep. Don Young (who has often seemed to think that his job in Congress was precisely to craft legislation that would financially benefit himself, his friends, relations, and cronies, and frankly anybody who threw him enough cash), former House Speaker "Planet Denny" Hastert of Illinois, and of course currently embattled California Rep. Buck McKeon.
A Wyoming congresswoman co-sponsored legislation to double the life span of federal grazing permits that ranchers such as her husband rely on to feed cattle.
And a Pennsylvania congressman co-sponsored a natural gas bill as Exxon Mobil negotiated a deal that paid millions for his wife's shares in two natural gas companies founded by her great-great-grandfather.
Those lawmakers were among 73 members of Congress who have sponsored or co-sponsored legislation in recent years that could benefit businesses or industries in which either they or their family members are involved or invested, according to a Washington Post analysis. The findings emerge from an examination by The Post of financial disclosure forms and public records for all 535 members of the House and Senate.
The practice is both legal and permitted under the ethics rules that Congress has written for itself, which allow lawmakers to take actions that benefit themselves or their families except when they are the lone beneficiaries. The financial disclosure system Congress has implemented also does not require the legislators to identify potential conflicts at the time that they take official actions that intersect or overlap with their investments.
Just how legal their self-serving transactions were is a different discussion. The folks the WaPo team unearthed have by and large made a fetish of getting what passes for an ethical blessing from the ethics "officers" they themselves have set up and essentially own.
Members of Congress contact the House and Senate ethics offices thousands of times each year to seek legal advice on a range of activities, including their work on legislation that might pose a conflict. Between 2007 and 2011, lawyers for the two committees issued at least 2,800 written opinions to lawmakers, sent 6,500 e-mails containing advice and provided guidance over the phone 40,000 times, according to records kept by the two committees.Can you imagine how outrageous a deal would have to be to get a thumbs-down from these people?
The committees rarely discipline their own, instead providing advisory opinions that generally give support and justification to lawmakers who take actions that intersect with their personal financial holdings, according to interviews with nearly a dozen ethics experts and government watchdog groups. And though Congress has required top executive branch officials to divest themselves of assets that may present a conflict, lawmakers have not asked the same of themselves.
And yet, as you read through the stories the Post team has assembled and then discussed with the interested parties, you'll find them treating the ethics offices as if they were some kind of magic cross between the Oracle of Delphi and the shyster lawyer who'll produce any kind of document you want as long as you pay his fee.
For example, there's Rep. Dennis Carodoza (D-CA), who made himself the horse-racing industry's best friend during a three-year congressional struggle to "improve" the way investments in horses are treated tax-wise, playing a major role in slipping just what they were looking for into the conference-committee version of the next farm bill -- and then began buying racehorses!
After purchasing his first racehorse, Cardoza said, he and his staff sought opinions from the ethics committee on any actions he took that might affect the industry.Oh, there's more to the story of Representative Cardoza and the horsie people, but you can read that on your own.
"My staff routinely checked in with the committee to ensure all of my activities and interests were completely without conflict," Cardoza said in an e-mailed statement.
The Post asked for copies of any written opinion, but Cardoza declined to say whether the ones he received were written or oral. Such opinions are not subject to public records laws.
He said he did not think his work on the farm bill in 2008 presented a conflict, because he did not own any racehorses at the time. He said the bill he introduced after he began buying racehorses in 2009 would have "treated all bettors the same" and was aimed at helping the bettors, not the horse industry.
A lot of the congressional self-enrichers nestle their financial self-interests cozily inside those of their constituents', which they're allowed to represent zealously.
When the House and Senate wrote their first set of modern ethics rules in the 1970s, in response to the Watergate scandal, they expressly prohibited members from engaging in legislative activities that would financially benefit them. But both chambers immediately carved out exemptions to the rule.Again, there's a lot more back-and-forth in the piece, but it does seem to come back to the happy circumstance that the congresswoman's livestock interests happen to be, by astounding coincidence, in one of her home state's major industries. So it must be all right, right?
The greatest latitude was provided to lawmakers whose business interests aligned with major industries within their home states. "If a dairy farmer represented a dairy farming state in the Senate, and introduced, worked for, and voted for legislation to raise or maintain price supports for dairy producers, he would not fall under the strictures of this rule," the Senate ethics manual says.
Dozens of lawmakers identified in the Post analysis fell into this category. In interviews, prepared statements and on their congressional Web sites, lawmakers routinely pointed to their home states' needs as the driving cause for their legislative agendas.
For example, Rep. Cynthia M. Lummis (R-Wyo.) owns between $1 million and $5 million in her family's livestock business in Wyoming, where the state animal is the bison and cattle ranches dot the landscape.
She is one of 15 lawmakers co-sponsoring a bill that would double, from 10 years to 20 years, the duration of federal grazing permits for livestock that feeds on publicly held lands. Her husband, records show, holds a permit through 2017 to graze cattle on 675 acres of federal land.
Last year, Lummis also introduced a bill that seeks to change how cattle prices are negotiated to ensure, she says, that ranchers and farmers are fairly compensated. She is also one of the co-sponsors of a bill to exclude livestock manure from being defined as a hazardous substance.
All three bills are pending.
In an interview, Lummis said she that did not seek guidance on the bills from the ethics committee but that she thinks her actions present no potential for conflict.
Ditto with Alabama Republicrook Sen. Jeff Sessions, one of the dimmer bulbs in that body, who nevertheless knows which side his investment bread is buttered on. Alabama has a major timber industry, and Senator Jeff by astonishing coincidence has major timber investments, which have benefited significantly from his faithful shepherding of timber interests in the Senate.
Senator Jeff's mouthpiece, Stephen Miller, told the Post reporters that he's such a passionate upholders of his constituents' economic interests that there wasn't even any reason to seek an ethics opinion. Oh, and not just his own personal Alabama constituents. Senator Jeff is standing up for America! According to our Steve: "The senator's reform efforts with respect to timber are part of a larger, broader effort to ensure the competitiveness of American industry and to defend the American worker on the world stage."
Kind of makes you want to stand up and salute the flag.
My guess is that there are varying degrees of culpability in the cases the Post team has unearthed. I'm not much impressed, for example, by one cited early on.
The legislators, in interviews and through spokesmen, said they saw no conflicts between their legislative actions and holdings. They added that they have a duty to advocate for their constituents, even when those interests align with their own.Somehow, I don't really see Owens's support of public broadcasting as being remotely in the same categories as these other, er, financial adventures. Especially since the congressman in fact declared his possible conflict at the very moment he was advocating for public broadcasting.
Last year, for example, when Republicans attempted to slash funding for public broadcasting, Rep. William L. Owens (D-N.Y.) was among a group of Democrats who fought to stop them. Owens's wife is an executive at a public television station, one of nine public TV and radio outlets that broadcast into his district in Upstate New York. Owens disclosed her job when he spoke briefly on the House floor opposing the proposed cuts.
"From my perspective, I was representing nine entities," Owens said in an interview. "It wasn't like I was asking for a specific item for the entity my wife worked for."
Remember Harvard Prof. Dennis Thompson? I quoted him atop this post, from the Post article, saying that "ethics rules are supposed to make things clear and transparent" and "they should not require the public or the media to go digging around to make the connections." The Post reporters report: "Disclosure should also be broadened, he said, so the public is notified by a lawmaker of potential conflicts at the time they are taking official actions, including when bills are introduced."