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Should Congress be allowed to set its own ethic rules and police itself when it comes to ethics matters?

(Transcripts of video clips are at the end of the document.)

Backgrounder: Congressional Ethics
A recent poll found that only 25% of American were satisfied with the job Congress is doing for them. Questions over ethics may play a part in that low rating. Just what are the rules that are meant to ensure that elected representatives aren't swayed by constituents or special interests? The House of Representatives own Web site publishes a list of FAQs for its members. Among the most asked questions: A state university in the Member's home state has offered the Member tickets to one of its basketball games. Can the Member accept? Find out more about the rules and the rules committee... more]

Class Is in Session...

Bill Moyers talked with Thomas Frank, author of WHAT'S THE MATTER WITH KANSAS: HOW CONSERVATIVES WON THE HEART OF AMERICA and Norman Ornstein of the conservative American Enterprise Institute and long-time Washington observer about the particular problems exhibited by the Abramoff scandal, and the general problems that perplex a political and campaign system that runs on money. Frank suggests that the problem goes deeper than guys just "gaming the system" but is a product of contempt for government. Ornstein, commented on the ethics process itself: "Part of it is Congress basically took their ethics process and threw it out the window more than a decade ago, partly because we were into these wars between the parties where we were criminalizing policy differences. When you lose an ethics process, you lose a sensitivity to some of these questions of what you're doing on a day-to-day basis."

Watch the video

Study finds almost $50 million spent on travel

The Center for Public Integrity, American Public Media and Northwestern University's Medill News Service conducted a nine-month analysis of congressional disclosure forms for travel January 2000 through June 2005. "Privately Sponsored Trips Hot Tickets on Capitol Hill" showed that during that 5 year period, members of Congress and their aides took at least 23,000 trips valued at almost $50 million. Private sponsors - corporations, trade associations and nonprofit groups financed these trips.

Congressional ethics rules seem explicit:

  • Lobbyist-paid travel is forbidden.
  • Sponsored trips must be connected to their official duties.
  • All staffer's trips must be cleared in advance.
  • No gift of $50 or more may be accepted.
In this session we will review the findings of The Center for Public Integrity repor, exploring some of the difficulties in interpreting, enforcing and monitoring rules that, on the surface, seem straightforward.

Tracking the source

Despite the rules banning travel on a lobbyist's nickel, the study by The Center for Public Integrity found that 90 trips taken between January 2000 through June 2005 and valued at $145,000 were sponsored or co-sponsored by firms registered to lobby the federal government. Some would argue that this only represents a small fraction (4% of the number of trips taken and only .29% of the money spent). However, there may be other reasons for alarm.

For one thing, it is often difficult to determine the source of the funding or the relationship between the sponsor and a registered lobbyist. Nonprofits may be set up intentionally by a lobbying agency (as in the case of "shell" or "pass through" nonprofits set up by Jack Abramoff) or may simply be used as a conduit for funds from the lobbyist's clients. In addition, critics of the current system charge, reporting standards themselves, and policing of the reports are minimal.

In the "GIMME FIVE"- INVESTIGATION OF TRIBAL LOBBYING MATTERS, the Committee uncovered numerous instances of nonprofit organizations that appeared to be involved in activities unrelated to their mission as described to the Internal Revenue Service. The Committee also observed tax exempt organizations apparently serving as or being used as extensions of for-profit lobbying operations.

The full extent of this problem is not known, but concerns about the source of funding for trips has led some to call for an outright ban on privately funded trips. In a Letter to the Chairman of the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct for the House, a coalition of reform groups urged, "If members of Congress are traveling on official business for public purposes, it is the public that should pay for such trips, not private interests." (Campaign Legal Center, Public Citizen, Democracy 21, U.S. PIRG, League of Women Voters)

Regardless of whether travel is privately or publicly financed, there may still be opportunities for abuse. Here are some other concerns that have been raised regarding congressional travel.

Other concerns

Is it "access" or "excess"? That's a question members of the public could easily ask about the extravagant perks ($500-a-night hotel rooms) and lavish add-ons ($25,000 corporate jet rides) enjoyed by members of Congress. Of the 23,000 trips taken between January 2000 through June 2005:

  • 2,300 cost $5,000 or more
  • 500 cost $10,000 or more
  • 16 cost $25,000 or more
Congressional ethics rules state that trips shouldn't be "substantially recreational in nature." Critics are skeptical that this rule is observed pointing to the number of trips to vacation destinations, the sketchy itineraries submitted as justification, the presence of spouses who also travel at the expense of the sponsors and the length of time spent at those destinations.

Another finding of the report is that disclosure forms are inadequate. Not only are they incomplete, they ask only the bare minimum of information - certainly not enough for the public to determine whether the trip was justified. "Fact finding", a commonly cited justification is hardly informative. Critics of the current reporting system say that these reporting slights are themselves a clear violation of ethics rules. But the main problem may lie with the oversight of the whole system.

What others are saying

In January 2006, Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert suggested that an outright ban might solve the problems highlighted by the Abramoff scandal. But support for such a ban remains slim. According to The Center for Public Integrity, in a March 9 letter, representatives of 35 religious and human-rights groups urged House Speaker Dennis Hastert not to change the travel rules "in a fashion that will impede the continued ability of House Members and staff to travel on educational and fact-finding missions funded by non-governmental organizations"

The question remains how to develop a travel policy that enables members of Congress to spend time outside of Washington meeting with the public and educating themselves about critical issues in a way that is ethical, above reproach, and fiscally wise. A 2006 reform proposal in the Senate would prohibit lobbyists from going along on trips and require more thorough disclosure - full itineraries would be required.

Discussion

  • Should Congress be allowed to set its own ethic rules and police itself when it comes to ethics matters? What kind of system could you envision that would be a good alternative?
  • The business of governance like most other businesses requires travel. We learned that Congressional travel rules seem pretty clear, so what procedures or rules can you think of that would prevent abuse of travel by our representatives?


BEGIN VIDEO CLIP — BILL MOYERS TALKS WITH NORMAN ORNSTEIN AND THOMAS FRANK

BILL MOYERS: What has happened to the moral compass?

THOMAS FRANK: Well, it's you know, it's been demagnetized by the money. And then you've got to remember one other thing. What I'm trying to supply here are ways to-- in which this scandal is linked to a certain political way of looking at the world. It's not just a bunch of guys that-- that saw a chance and took it. I mean, it is that, obviously. In the same way that Enron was. These are guys gaming the system. Or WorldCom, or all the accounting stuff that you saw in the 1990s. Guys that figured out how they could do it and they did it. But it's also the product of contempt for government. Okay?

BILL MOYERS: Do you agree with that?

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: I think there's a lot of-a lot of truth to that. Part of it is Congress basically took their ethics process and threw it out the window more than a decade ago, partly because we were into these wars between the parties where we were criminalizing policy differences. When you lose an ethics process, you lose a sensitivity to some of these questions of what you're doing on a day-to-day basis. And everybody-- or lots of people became a part of that. And there are Democrats-- just as there are Republicans who have gone so far over to the dark side that they're going to end up serving very long prison sentences. It happens when you don't have any kind of boundaries in place. And these guys were happy to remove the boundaries 'cause they could stay in power that way.

BILL MOYERS: But the Speaker of the House removed the boundaries on the Ethics Committee when it started getting close to Tom DeLay.

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: That I found----outrageous things I have ever seen.

THOMAS FRANK: compound the outrage? Apparently Michael Scanlon you-- I'm sure you know this-- has written a master's thesis at-

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: Johns Hopkins. Yes.

THOMAS FRANK: --at Johns Hopkins about how the Ethics Committee is-- is always already compromised.

BILL MOYERS: So you wrote recently that the leaders of Congress have shown they don't really care if their colleagues are taking bribes or using hookers or whether there's oversight of crooked contracting. I mean, is-- has this become a culture of corruption?

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: It has become a culture of corruption. In a way, I cringe when Democrats have used it as a campaign phrase, because I don't want it to become a partisan element here. This is a culture of corruption. It's wrong-headed. It's bad for the country. And we're only now starting to see some corrective mechanisms in place.

END CLIP

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