No Bait and Switch, Nancy
According to the New York Times, it appears that Democrats are having trouble figuring out whether they should really and truly ban privately funded trips as they promised the voters--or whether they should just pretend to ban them and leave enough loopholes in place that nothing really changes.
This is no small issue; it has enormous implications for ethical behavior in Congress--and for taxpayer dollars. It's also what lies at the heart of many of the accusations against Jack Abramoff and his cronies. To quote the Washington Post:
Over 5 1/2 years, Republican and Democratic lawmakers accepted nearly $50 million in trips, often to resorts and exclusive locales, from corporations and groups seeking legislative favors, according to the most comprehensive study to date on the subject of congressional travel.
From January 2000 through June 2005, House and Senate members and their aides were away from Washington for more than 81,000 days -- a combined 222 years -- on at least 23,000 trips, according to the report, issued yesterday by the nonpartisan Center for Public Integrity. About 2,300 of the trips cost $5,000 or more, at least 500 cost $10,000 or more, and 16 cost $25,000 or more.
The issue was important enough for Pelosi to include it in a press release demanding ethics reform in Congress in a bullet that explicitly read:
Enforce the ban on Members and staff soliciting privately-funded travel.
But now the capitualation on this extremely important issue has begun, before the debate even starts to take place:
After winning control of Congress by capitalizing on Republican scandals, Democrats are unsure whether to crack down on a perk that got some lawmakers in trouble.
The new majority is unlikely to ban all privately funded trips, which in recent years have taken lawmakers everywhere from Israel to Jamaica.
Surely, though, there must be a good reason for the capitulation, right? At least if we are going to permit corruption, there must be a Democratic special interest or two, like labor unions or progressive groups, who want to help maintain the status quo to help lobby Congress, right? It couldn't possibly be undue pressure from a controversial source that would anger the Progressive base even more than the original capitulation, could it?
One of the reasons a travel ban is unlikely is heavy pressure from pro-Israel groups, among them the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), which has a long history of paying for congressional visits to Israel.
Now that's just fabulous. Before Congress is even in session, we're already ready to let the future Jack Abramoffs of the world do their thing, because freaking AIPAC throws a stink. In fact, since the biggest issue involves whether organizations who hire lobbyists should be allowed to pay for congressional travel, it may well be that groups like the Aspen Institute and AIPAC would be able to continue their corrupt lobbying efforts, while labor unions would be excluded:
A ban on trips financed by organizations that employ lobbyists would leave an opening for such groups as the Aspen Institute, which has spent $3.5 million over the past six years to fund congressional travel to policy conferences around the world. But it is unclear whether groups such as the nonprofit arm of AIPAC — the American Israel Education Foundation — would be subject to the same rules as the Aspen Institute. Trips paid for by organizations such as the United Steelworkers would likely be prohibited.
See, when I wrote that we should stop focusing on inside baseball and 2008 contenders to focus on changing the way Washington does business, some said that I was short on specifics, preferring useless rants to making serious efforts of policy. Well, THIS is exactly the sort of thing I'm talking about. If we want to get our government back and move forward in a serious way to help fix this country, we have to be vigilant about issues like this, and hold our officials' feet to the fire. And unfortunately, it looks like that is going to include some of the most powerful people on our side of the aisle:
A further complication for Democratic leaders is that Democrats have been some of the biggest recipients of privately funded travel. Based on number of trips taken, all of the top 10 recipients of privately funded travel since Jan. 1, 2000, are Democrats, according to PoliticalMoneyLine.com, which is owned by Congressional Quarterly.
The No. 1 traveler has been Rep. Stephanie Tubbs Jones of Ohio, who is expected to be the next chairwoman of the House ethics committee. Tubbs Jones, who has taken 74 trips during the seven-year period, defends her trips, which have included a journey to a Las Vegas conference in 2005 courtesy of the United Steelworkers and a speaking engagement in Barbados earlier this year paid for by the National Bar Association.
This is completely and totally unacceptable. It is no exaggeration to say that the future of this country depends on the new Democratic Congress sticking to its promises of ethics reform and justice. If they don't, progressives will swept out of office as surely and as swiftly as they were swept in. I will not sit idly by while the American People are bait-and-switched in their effort to fundamentally change the way Washington does business.
And it shouldn't be that difficult: even John McCain and Joe Lieberman are on board. I'll give credit where credit is due--if Pelosi and Reid won't pass commonsense reforms supported by the likes of McCain and Lieberman, I'll have to seriously rethink which stripe of politicians are worthy of my support.
If you want something actionable to do, my fellow Progressives, here it is:
Email Nancy Pelosi or call her offices at (202) 225-4965 and (415) 556-4862. Let her know that you will NOT be bait-and-switched, and that you demand that she make good on her promise to have the most ethical congress ever.
Email Harry Reid or call his offices at (202) 224-3542 or (702) 388-5020. Let him know that you won't be bait-and-switched, and that you demand a full blockade on privately-funded trips for Congresspeople.
Email Martin Meehan, who will be the Democratic House point man on ethics in the coming congress, or call his offices at (202) 225-3411 or (978) 459-0101. Let him know that you won't tolerate these shenanigans, and that you expect better from Democrats.
Good governance and future Democratic electoral victories depend on it.