Politics & Policy

Closing a Loopy Loophole

Getting the congressional- reform ball rolling.

As Republicans in Washington scramble to deal with the growing–and related–problems of wasteful pork-barrel spending and questionable lobbying practices, there is one little-discussed solution that would address both issues. Congress should close the loophole that exempts lobbyists for federal, state, and local government agencies from the $50 gift limit that private-sector and not-for-profit lobbyists must observe.

House and Senate ethics-rules cap most individual gifts, such as meals or sports tickets, at $50 per elected official or staffer, with an annual limit of $100 per recipient from any single source. However, the rules specifically exempt “Anything that is paid for by the Federal Government, by a State or local government, or secured by the Government under a Government contract.”

This loophole allows lobbyists for public universities and city governments, for example, to ignore the typical $50 gift limit and to shower senators and members of Congress with free luxury skybox tickets to the biggest football games, or free front-row tickets to the most popular concerts.

While they’re out on the town with elected officials or their powerful staff members, these taxpayer-funded lobbyists are able to pitch their earmark wish lists–for instance, the supposed need for more federal taxpayer dollars to fund a new building on campus, or a new bridge or museum for the city government. Meanwhile, taxpayers are at home paying the bills for both the free tickets and the pork projects lined up at these social outings.

Last Tuesday, congressional leaders outlined broad lobbying reform proposals that would tighten current gift limits, but appear not close the loophole that favors government lobbyists. In fact, Republican leaders called for a new ban on privately funded travel for elected officials and staff, which would presumably create an entirely new loophole for publicly funded travel provided by government lobbyists seeking federal funding for their pet projects.

Members of the U.S. Senate and House certainly do have a responsibility to communicate with local and state officials about important public-policy issues, and that communication should continue. Not overseeing how government officials at all levels spend taxpayer dollars would be an abdication of Congress’s responsibility. But the same lobbying rules that apply to private-sector and not-for-profit lobbyists should also apply to taxpayer-funded government lobbyists.

Only a First Step

Of course, closing these loopholes won’t completely fix the problem of earmarks (which some, including National Review, would like to see the GOP target, too) or lobbying excesses. But it will make it just a little bit harder for wasteful pork projects to get approved.

Other ways Congress can address its pork problem include the radical notion of posting the full text of all spending bills online for at least 72 hours before allowing Congress to vote on them. This would give taxpayers and their advocates a chance to find future Bridges to Nowhere before it’s too late.

Congress should also consider U.S. Rep. Jeff Flake’s (R., Ariz.) proposals to require that all earmarks be included in the text of spending bills before they go to a conference committee, thus making them more visible and amendable before the final legislation is passed. Flake has also proposed that Members of Congress be allowed to openly debate any unauthorized earmarks on the House floor. Sure, that could slow the process down a little, but given the excesses of the past few years, would that necessarily be such a bad thing?

In addition, U.S. Rep. John Boehner, who has endorsed the idea of closing the taxpayer-funded lobbying loopholes, has also wisely proposed “enacting a ban on unauthorized earmarks for private entities that serve private interests at the expense of the public interest.” Boehner’s rivals for the House majority-leader post, Congressmen Roy Blunt and John Shadegg, have yet to release comprehensive lobbying reform plans or comment publicly on closing the taxpayer-funded lobbying loophole.

Comprehensive lobbying reform is sure to be a contentious issue when Congress returns to Washington, and it’s likely to take some time to work its way through the legislative labyrinth. But in the short term, Congress should immediately close the loopholes in their internal rules that make it so easy for government lobbyists to use our tax dollars to get their hands on even more of our tax dollars. It’s a vicious cycle that has to stop.

Ed Frank is director of communications of the free-market grassroots group Americans for Prosperity.

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