Where’s the Outrage Over Ethics Issues, Abuse of Power?

Posted March 4, 2003 at 5:09pm

There is a fine line of moral ambiguity in the relationship between Members of Congress and interest groups or lobbyists. Interest groups and lobbyists want something from lawmakers, whether it is a rider to a bill, an amendment in committee or on the floor, a hearing highlighting a problem, a targeted appropriation, a tax benefit, or in some cases Congressional inattention to a problem or a peccadillo. [IMGCAP(1)]

Lawmakers want something from lobbyists, from campaign contributions to money for their charitable interests to support for their policy goals. The money that floats around the political process has its own ambiguity, with the line between an unethical gift and a legitimate contribution often being unclear, or utterly ridiculous. A lobbyist can’t treat a lawmaker to an expensive dinner — unless the meal is accompanied by a fat check for his or her campaign coffers. The invitations to lobbyists to attend fundraisers for individual lawmakers are often thinly veiled shakedown efforts, and sometimes, in follow-up phone calls from staffers or Members, the veils get removed entirely. There can be warmth, mutual self-interest and mutual back-scratching. And there can be extortion and coercion.

There is a fine line. But there is a line. And if any of the reports in The Washington Post on the alleged behavior of Rep. Mike Oxley’s (R-Ohio) staff — personal and committee — toward the Investment Company Institute and its lobbyist Julie Domenick are true, that line has been crossed by a wide, wide margin. Let me emphasize: if the reports are true. Right now they are just allegations, but ones made by reputable reporters using multiple sources. I was frankly stunned by the story, not the least because Oxley — a fine legislator who often works across party lines — is one of the last Members you would imagine engaging in this kind of brute force.

Nonetheless, here are the allegations: According to the Post, Oxley, via staffers including Financial Services Committee Chief of Staff Robert U. Foster III and former committee staffer Sam Geduldig, pressured the ICI to fire Domenick and replace her with a Republican. The Post said, “Geduldig told a group of lobbyists … that Oxley’s probe of the mutual fund industry was linked to Domenick’s employment at the mutual fund trade group.”

By most accounts, Domenick is an effective representative for the mutual fund industry. She is also close to Democrat John Dingell (Mich.).

Perhaps foolishly, Domenick has not paid proper obeisance to Oxley in his role as chairman of the committee that now oversees the industry she represents. He has every right to refuse to see her or to indicate to the industry group his deep displeasure over her slights. But he does not have the right to use the power vested in him, enhanced by his powerful gavel, for coercive purposes.

The Financial Services Committee has been poised to investigate the mutual fund industry, which has not had the best time in recent years with the battered stock market. Congressional hearings focused on issues such as overcharging customers, misleading data and so on could be a serious blow to the industry. Or, if tilted another way, they could be little more than a minor annoyance.

It is wrong for government officials, elected or appointed, to pressure interest groups to hire particular lobbyists or to apply partisan pressure of any kind on their internal operations. It is more than wrong to suggest that a Congressional investigation’s tenor and structure will be shaped by such decisions. Other than direct bribery, the promise or threat of government action in return for any private favor or act is as dangerous an abuse of power as there is.

Back when the Democrats had a 40-year stranglehold on majority power in the House, Republicans regularly railed against their abuses of power. Then-Rep. Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) adroitly used that theme to bring his Republicans finally into majority status in 1995. I remember long conversations with Republican lawmakers such as Rep. David Dreier (Calif.) about how things would be different when they were in charge, how they would not behave with arrogance or high-handedness. Since then, as the rules changes at the beginning of this Congress suggest, there are precious few signs that Republicans are any better.

Consider Tom DeLay’s (R-Texas) efforts a few years back to force the Electronics Industries Association to back off from hiring former Democratic Rep. Dave McCurdy (Okla.) (for which he received an ethics panel slap), and the broader “K Street Project” to pressure lobbying firms, corporate offices and trade associations to hire their often handpicked Republican choices. Evidence that, if anything, Republicans nouveau riche with power are more crude and insensitive about abusing their power.

Of course, some would argue there is no difference here between the parties; maybe it is like the difference between Michael Corleone and his brother Sonny — a difference in degree of subtlety, but not in kind. Democrats and Republicans in power have always used it to push or pull lobbyists and force them to do their bidding, just not often with direct threats.

That is probably true. But if we shrug something like this off we are losing any standard of control or ethics entirely and opening up the door to even worse abuses.

Assume that the allegations are greatly exaggerated or simply involve an overeager junior staffer shooting his mouth off or abusing his authority. If anybody in the House is even raising this kind of quid pro quo, it still requires a swift and immediate response from the House to protect its basic integrity — not just an unveiled threat from House Majority Leader Tom DeLay and others that if Democrats pursue this issue, retribution will swiftly follow.

This poses a huge challenge to the House ethics committee and its chairman, Rep. Joel Hefley (R-Colo.), who so far has shown signs that he is serious about his job. What passes for an ethics process in the House requires a Member to file a complaint. No complaint, no investigation. Even if there is no merit to these allegations, if there is no ethics committee investigation of them, it will suggest beyond a reasonable doubt that there is no ethics process.

There is also a challenge here to limited-government conservatives. If there is anything they should stand for, it is an understanding of the coercive potential of the power of the state and a zeal to curb abuses of that power. Paul Weyrich, Grover Norquist, Howard Phillips, where are you? As former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.) would say, where is the outrage?