Wednesday, July 02, 2014

So, freeloading House GOP junketeers really do have some sense of . . . well, not shame exactly, but something sort of related


House Ethics Committee Chair Michael Conaway (R-TX) -- a fine ethicist who grasps the evil of "duplicative paperwork"

"These kinds of backroom deals and changing of the rules in the middle of the night is exactly why Congress has a lower approval rating than cockroaches and traffic jams."
-- Rep. Dave Loebsack (D-IA)

by Ken

We've gotten so used to thinking of the rampaging hordes of right-wing political scumbagger as "shameless," as truly beyond any sense of human decency, that it's almost comforting to find the need to pull back just a tad. It seems the boys—and they are still overwhelmingly boys—may actually have some tiny, primitive-brain sense of, well, not shame exactly, but some level awareness of their reprehensibleness.

Again, even in the cases I'm about to cite, there's no evidence that the dolts involved actually feel bad about what they've done. It's more like, having done things they know are going to cause people to yammer at them, they just don't like being yammered at for their misbehavior.

One example I already mentioned on Monday, in connection with the Supreme Court's careful end-of-term scheduling, which left to the very last morning the dropping of this term's big ideological dirty bombs. Now there are many considerations in arranging the High Court's schedule, all of them of course under the tight control of the High Court itself. But was there any doubt that the Cro-Magnon Five knew that these exhibitions of thuggery were going to produce firestorms? Possibly the atmosphere around the place is getting testier as the four Court moderates understand just what contempt they're held in, and some of the venom that's creeping into their dissenting opinions is also being vented in chambers, and some of the more tender-eared C-Ms are actually noticing. In any case, it seems pretty clear that the release of the Hobby Lobby and Harris rulings was a dirty dump-and-run job.

There may have been an additional consideration here in that both decisions were announced by that fumbling fool Sammy "The Hammer" Alito, and when The Hammer drops an opinion, the ignorance and stupidity start flaking off before the thing hits the ground. You'd like to think that some at least of the C-M justices are capable of some level of embarrassment.

I loved this description from Dana Milbank's Washington Post column yesterday, "In Hobby Lobby ruling, the Supreme Court uses a 'fiction,' " which had the virtue, as so many of Dana's columns do, of his shoe-leather approach to the job, whereby he actually goes out to observe firsthand the craziness he's reporting on.
There was a certain risk in having Alito deliver the 5-to-4 opinion defending corporate personhood, because his mannerisms are strikingly robotic for a human. Assigned both of Monday’s opinions, Alito delivered a 33-minute monologue — his only departure from the text before him was to raise his head mechanically at intervals and glance at a table to his right — that seemed to have a soporific effect on his colleagues. Clarence Thomas rubbed his head, Anthony Kennedy rested his head in his right palm, Ruth Bader Ginsburg (who was to read her dissent in the Hobby Lobby case) drank a large quantity from her coffee mug, and the others stared ahead with unfocused gazes.

Alito, seated between Ginsburg and Justice Elena Kagan, and his colleagues in the majority also may not have considered how flesh-and-blood humans might perceive the ruling — the five men of the conservative bloc allowing restrictions on birth control over the objections of the three women on the court.
I can't tell you how much I love this image of Justice Clarence driven to rubbing his head and "Slow Anthony" to resting his head in his palm by their droning colleague. Do I need to add that it's only in Justice Sammy's muddled head that he's a hammer of virtue (or something)? Well, in his head and in real life, considering that he has one of nine votes on the U.S. Supreme Court -- or, more to the point, one of five votes in the Court's ruling Cro-Magnon majority.


For our other working example of Republican not-quite-shame, kudos to DailyKos's Jed Lewison for latching onto Shane Goldmacher's Monday National Journal scoop, "Congress Quietly Deletes a Key Disclosure of Free Trips Lawmakers Take." As we'll see, the feat accomplished here required some still-unexplained House Democratic collusion, but there doesn't seem to be much doubt who the movers and shakers here were.

Actually, here I think we need to include the deck written for Shane G's report: "House Ethics reverses decades of precedent as lobbyist-sponsored lawmaker travel expands." Shane begins:
It's going to be a little more difficult to ferret out which members of Congress are lavished with all-expenses-paid trips around the world after the House has quietly stripped away the requirement that such privately sponsored travel be included on lawmakers' annual financial-disclosure forms.

The move, made behind closed doors and without a public announcement by the House Ethics Committee, reverses more than three decades of precedent. Gifts of free travel to lawmakers have appeared on the yearly financial form dating back its creation in the late 1970s, after the Watergate scandal. National Journal uncovered the deleted disclosure requirement when analyzing the most recent batch of yearly filings.

"This is such an obvious effort to avoid accountability," said Melanie Sloan, executive director of the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. "There's no legitimate reason. There's no good reason for it."
Oh, Melanie, Melanie, Melanie! Expecting "legitimate" reasons for the behavior of House Republicans!

Let's go a paragraph deeper into Shane's report:
Free trips paid for by private groups must still be reported separately to the House's Office of the Clerk and disclosed there. But they will now be absent from the chief document that reporters, watchdogs, and members of the public have used for decades to scrutinize lawmakers' finances.
Ding ding ding ding!

Melanie Sloan obviously understands what's going on.
"The more you can hide, the less accountable you can be," Sloan said of lawmakers. "It's clear these forms are useful for reporters and watchdogs, and obviously a little too useful."
Ding ding ding ding!

The good news, at least for would-be House junketeers, is that, however secretly, the clamps are coming off some of the fun behavior that's been made so inconvenient since that rat bastard Jack Abramoff got caught doing all those naughty things -- or rather got them caught doing all those naughty things. Ah yes, Jack Abramoff. There's a name we haven't heard in a while.
The change occurs as free travel, which critics have criticized as thinly veiled junkets, has come back into vogue. Last year, members of Congress and their aides took more free trips than in any year since the influence-peddling scandal that sent lobbyist Jack Abramoff to prison. There were nearly 1,900 trips at a cost of more than $6 million last year, according to Legistorm, which compiles travel records.

Now none of those trips must be included on the annual disclosures of lawmakers or their aides.

The tabs for these international excursions can run into the tens of thousands of dollars. One trip to Australia earlier this year cost nearly $50,000. Lawmakers are often invited to bring along their husbands or wives, fly in business class, and stay in plush four-star hotels. In the wake of the Abramoff scandal, lobbyists were banned from organizing or paying for these travels. But some of the nonprofits underwriting them today have extremely close ties to lobbying groups, including sharing staff, money, and offices.
You see why I say there's no indication on the part of the House Republicans of shame. It's not that they have any compunctions about taking these trips. They'd just rather not have inappropriate people, like us, knowing about it.

Which is what's so hilariously right about the House GOP's furious antics aimed at keeping this little technical adjustment under wraps. National Journal, you'll recall, "uncovered the deleted disclosure requirement when analyzing the most recent batch of yearly filings." Which still put them ahead of a lot of folks on Capitol Hill -- including, apparently, House Democrats.
The only indication that these trips no longer need to be disclosed on annual reports came in the instructions booklet issued to lawmakers in 2014. The guidelines for the new electronic filing system tell lawmakers and staff they "are no longer required to report privately sponsored travel" on the form.

Perhaps because the ethics committee's edict was issued so quietly, disclosure remained uneven.

For instance, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, who led a GOP delegation of lawmakers to Israel last summer paid for by the American Israel Education Foundation, which is closely tied to the pro-Israel lobby, did not include the trip on his annual form. House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, who led a similar trip for Democrats, did include it on his form. But some of the rank-and-file members who went on the trip with Hoyer did not.
In case you still don't grasp why it seemed like such a nifty idea to keep this change as quiet as possible, just look what happens when people start finding out.
Craig Holman, a lobbyist for the consumer group Public Citizen who closely tracks the international travels of lawmakers and the actions of the Ethics Committee, said he was "completely unaware" of the change until contacted by National Journal.

"There's seems to be no reason I could imagine why the Ethics Committee would minimize the amount of information that gets reported," Holman said.

Holman took solace in the fact that the post-Abramoff reform law included mandatory disclosure of such trips on the clerk's website. But he said he was still was concerned about their absence from the annual reports, which he called "a critical element for understanding the finances of our elected representatives."

"It's always good to have more disclosure than less," he said. "It just seems a little odd that the Ethics Committee would pass such a rule change."
Oh, Craig, Craig, Craig! You're just being modest. I'm absolutely sure you can imagine perfectly well "why the Ethics Committee would minimize the amount of information that gets reported." You know as well as anybody that if those mooks give up their right to silence, anything they say can be used against them in a court of law, or in the court of public opinion, just as if they were common criminal suspects.

As of Monday, the House Ethics Committee (don't you have to smile just a little when you say "House Ethics Committee"?) was still cocooned in its Cone of Silence. (We'll have further developments to report in a moment.)
House Ethics Committee Chairman Michael Conaway, R-Texas, did not return a call for comment; ranking member Linda Sanchez, D-Calif., referred questions to committee staff. The committee declined to comment.


By Tuesday, however, which is to say after the National Journal report appeared, the House Republican beast roused from its slumber. As Shane G reported in his follow-up yesterday, "Nancy Pelosi Says Decision to Delete Reporting Requirement for Free Trips 'Must Be Reversed,'" a spokesman for House Speaker "Sunny John" Boehner, Michael Steel, commented, "Rep. Pelosi's staff needs to talk to her representative on the Ethics Committee, who signed off on this bipartisan change to reduce duplicative paperwork."

The Ethics Committee, you'll recall, isn't like any other congressional committee, being made up of equal numbers, four each, of Democrats and Republicans -- basically, we might say, to ensure that neither party can do anything that would be, shall we say, awkward for the other party. (Awkwardness is, of course, of far greater concern to members of Congress than ethics.) "That means," Shane G wrote yesterday, "that ranking member Linda Sanchez, D-Calif., and her Democratic colleagues (Reps. Michael Capuano, Yvette Clarke, and Ted Deutch and Del. Pedro Pierluisi) had to have approved the deleted disclosure requirement, along with Republicans led by committee Chairman Michael Conaway of Texas." Ranking Member Sanchez, you'll recall, on Monday "referred questions to committee staff."

Yesterday even the Ethics Committee itself was heard from! In what Shane describes as "a rare public statement,"
Tom Rust, the committee's chief counsel, said that "the committee's nonpartisan staff recommended a number of changes to the financial-disclosure forms, including eliminating the need to report less information about private travel than the traveler had already publicly disclosed."
I'm not sure this actually makes sense ("eliminating the need to report less information about private travel than the traveler had already publicly disclosed"? huh?), but it seems to have been good enough to satisfy the not-very-curious Ethics Committee Dems, while being readily understandable to lots of House Republicans. Minority Leader Pelosi seems to have been genuinely unaware of the change until Monday, and you'll recall that Minority Whip Hoyer in fact did report a trip he didn't have to under the new rules.

I'm going to go out on a limb here and suggest that making a rule change you're eager to make for selfish reasons while camouflaging it as reducing "duplicative paperwork" (which after said reduction becomes invisible) is in fact a textbook case of this thing that's not really shame over bad behavior so much as it is a hope of being able to go on doing the bad behavior while keeping it under wraps.

Iowa Dem Dave Loebsack, whom we heard from at the top of this post, said Tuesday that he's going to introduce legislation to undo the rule change following the House's 4th of July recess. Whether the GOP leadership is prepared to allow such tinkering with this "bipartisan change" remains to be seen.

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