Honest and Open Thievery

The limits of Congress's ethics reforms


In a letter posted at Congress.org, a constituent praises Rep. Harry Mitchell (D-Ariz.) for his "brilliant intellect." As evidence, Mitchell's admirer cites the congressman's vote for the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act of 2007.

The margin by which the act passed—411 to 8 in the House, 83 to 14 in the Senate—takes some of the shine off Mitchell's brilliance. Still, he's probably smart enough to realize what his colleagues evidently understand: Congress's new honesty and openness are not what they're cracked up to be.

The Honest Leadership and Open Government Act requires that special appropriations added by individual legislators be listed in an online database at least 48 hours before they come to a vote. Critics such as Sens. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) complained bitterly about a loophole: Congressional leaders can certify that a bill contains no earmarks, and there's no way to challenge that determination.

A deeper problem is that publicity does not deter wasteful, parochial spending that legislators want to publicize. Consider what happened last month when Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) challenged a $100,000 appropriation for a prison museum near Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.

The earmark's sponsor, Rep. Nancy Boyda (D-Kan.), defended the honor of Leavenworth County, bragging that "we probably have more prisons…than any other county in the United States." She indignantly added that "the local residents are proud of their heritage and rightly so," since Leavenworth has hosted the likes of George "Machine Gun" Kelly and Nazi spy Fritz Duquesne.

The House approved Boyda's earmark by a vote of 317 to 112. Later she told The New York Times, "Democracy is a contact sport, and I'm not going to be shy about asking for money for my community."

So far this year the Democratic House has approved spending bills that include some 6,500 earmarks, not quite keeping pace with the Republicans' record of nearly 16,000 in 2005 but more than twice the whole-year total of a decade ago. Far from shaming legislators into fiscal restraint, the Times reports, "the new transparency has raised the value of earmarks as a measure of members' clout" and "intensified competition for projects by letting each member see exactly how many everyone else is receiving."

Congressional shamelessness likewise may undermine the goals of the new Senate ban on anonymous holds. A hold occurs when a senator refuses to let a bill or nomination proceed by unanimous consent, thereby requiring the measure's supporters to muster 60 votes to allow consideration of the measure.

Holds obviously can be used for purposes that offend supporters of limited government—to extort pork, for example, or obstruct fiscal reform. But any tool that blocks legislation is apt to do more good than harm. Notably, the hold's defenders include fiscal conservatives such as Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) as well as big spenders such as Robert Byrd (D-W.V.).

Still, it's hard to find fault with the new requirement that senators publicly identify themselves and state their reasons when they block legislation. We just shouldn't expect too much as a result of this openness. As with earmarks, legislators don't try to hide their actions when they're proud of them, even if they shouldn't be. Interestingly, no one put a secret hold on the secret hold ban.

Transparency may also prove overrated as a way of preventing lobbyists from influencing legislators by arranging campaign contributions. The Honest Leadership and Open Government Act requires public disclosure of "bundles" totaling $15,000 or more in a six-month period. Like the new attention to earmarks, highlighting these donations may simply spur competition, as K Street's denizens strive to keep up with their neighbors.

Although honesty and openness are surely preferable to dishonesty and secrecy (in politics, at least), they're not an adequate solution to a government that does too much and is therefore a magnet for people seeking gifts and favors. If a pickpocket becomes a mugger, he becomes more open and honest, but that doesn't make him more admirable.

© Copyright 2007 by Creators Syndicate Inc.