Ethics Law Intrudes on Personal Lives

Posted February 5, 2007 at 3:57pm

One of the lessons Congress learned from the November elections is that voters actually do expect elected officials to adhere to a standard of decency. Thus, the emphasis on a stringent ethics bill. Not only is a lobbyist prohibited from paying for the meal of a Member, a lobbyist also is prohibited from paying for the meal of a staff member.

Now the only way a Member of Congress can have a meal with a lobbyist is if the Member pays for it or the meal is part of a fundraising activity. The absurdity of this is that all the smaller interest groups and numerous nonprofit groups are now completely cut out of the more social process of developing a relationship with an elected official. What we’re left with are those people who are willing to pay $1,000 or more to attend a fundraising event for Members. As a political action committee fundraiser, I can assure you that this is not an improvement for anyone except me.

I guess the people who wrote the bill figured that fundraisers were beyond ethical redemption or that Members never would pay for their own meals. Let’s face it: Members of Congress can be accused of a lot of things, but being cheap is not one of them. They donate a disproportionate share of their time and money to all sorts of causes. The idea that if an incumbent had to pay for dinner then he or she wouldn’t eat with a lobbyist is ridiculous.

But the absolute best part of the new ethics package is the way that Congress ingeniously figured out a way to force Capitol Hill staffers to work longer hours. A friend of mine who is a single chief of staff pointed out that because of the new law, she is so wary of dating anyone who is a lobbyist that she figures she might as well stay at work. I thought she was stretching it until I spoke with an elections law attorney who confirmed that in most cases her date would be considered work, and she would have to pay for dinner.

My guess is that the male staffers who helped craft the law knew exactly what they were doing. The rules say that unless there is a history of a relationship, a staff member cannot accept a meal or anything of entertainment value. So, gender equality truly has hit Capitol Hill, and lobbyists dating Hill staffers now can say they want to pay for dinner, a weekend of skiing or even a trip to Europe, but the rules just won’t let them.

Unless of course, there is a history of a relationship. And that remains pretty much undefined. What exactly is a history of a relationship and what constitutes a relationship? Is it two, four, eight dates? Is it a relationship if you meet someone at a party on Saturday night and the next morning the lobbyist offers to pay for Sunday brunch at the Four Seasons? What if you saw someone you knew from college at an event but you never had dated, and then you talked about mutual friends and decided to go dinner?

What kind of a law tells people how to run their personal lives? On one hand we ask staffers to handle highly sensitive issues of national security and at the same time we don’t trust them to know the difference between a date and a business meeting.

I know this seems a bit absurd, but if you read the law and talk with single Hill staffers, they’re going to tell you this is exactly how they have to run their lives. I suppose if one of my daughters worked on the Hill I could take her to dinner, but my wife, who is a lobbyist, couldn’t. Oh, it’s not the history of a relationship issue; it’s the fear that someone might misconstrue the relationship and assume that she would be doing something for her mother that she wouldn’t normally do for anyone else.

A suggestion to Congress: Clarify the rules and forget the need to show the public how ethically pure you are. With all the geniuses on Capitol Hill, surely someone can figure out a way to let people pay for a date if they want to. If we think so little of staffers that we believe they can be persuaded to trade the best interests of the public for a social life, then we have much bigger problems to worry about.

Carl Silverberg is the principal of Silverberg Associates, a political consulting firm.