Felicia Muftic: Fixing Washington
July 13, 2010
In his first 18 months, President Obama has accomplished a significant percentage of his legislative agenda. What has not changed is the way Washington does business. Money, lobbyists and excessive partisanship still rule.
It would be Shangri La if the influence of money could be purged from elections, the legislative process and regulatory agencies. We know the system is broken. There is much hand-wringing, but concrete reform proposals are what we need.
Bipartisanship has become wishful thinking. Political leaders find it a winning strategy to oppose any and all things advocated by the other party, regardless of a proposal’s merit. The power to do so comes from application of Senate rules that have been twisted to require 60 votes for passage of nearly all legislation.
We have already enacted some reforms: Sunshine exposure of campaign contributions and funders and their lobbyists are public information. Presidential campaigns receive public funds.
That, however, has not stopped the influence of money as the cost of campaigns soars with the expense of advertising. The U.S. Supreme Court’s protecting our first amendment rights complicate simplistic approaches that constrain the rights of candidates to buy commercials. The court even expanded rights to corporations and unions this year. Forcing media to provide free exposure tramples other rights, though more taxpayer funding of campaigns could help level the playing field.
A place to start would be to reduce the influence of lobbyists over both those in the administrative and legislative branches.
Disclosures and restrictions on sources of bankrolling lobbyists have been in place for a long time but, even then, that has failed to stop special interest lobbyist influences in shaping legislation or the rules and regulations and enforcement that implement them. There are some proposals that could make a difference.
A core problem is Washington’s revolving door. We could hamstring some lobbyists’ ability to get special access to bend legislators’ ears. Legislators (and their staffs) who serve in Congress often linger as Beltway lobbyists after they leave the halls of Congress. Ex-legislators get doors opened by virtue of personal connections with former colleagues and insider knowledge of what rings their bells. Banning ex-legislators from becoming lobbyists is one way to weaken their special influence.
Regulators who serve at below market salaries are tempted to look for better paying jobs later with those they regulated, making them reluctant to make tough crackdowns on violators. While regulators need to be experienced and knowledgeable of the industry they regulate, there should be a long term blackout period before those who were enforcers can serve the industry they oversaw after they leave their official positions. Taking a position as a regulator should not be a resume building opportunity.
The failure of the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) to catch Bernie Madoff’s deceptive practices is legendary. SEC was an agency populated by young, inexperienced staffers who were paid far less than those they regulated. Competent financial wizards need to be paid the going wage and be forbidden for years from joining a financial services firm after they leave the agency.
Insisting on the right appointments without cozy industry relationships would help. Eyebrows were raised when Colorado’s former Attorney General Gale Norton, heading the Department of the Interior, joined Shell Oil immediately after leaving the Cabinet. She and others had widely approved industry self-regulation. The Gulf BP oil spill will be forever an example of why letting the fox guard the henhouse door was a bad idea for the public, yet industry liked it.
The Senate filibuster is another practice in need of reform. The filibuster once was a rare happening reserved for special circumstances and it forced compromise. Its constant over usage is a compromise-buster. The filibuster has become a method for the minority to stonewall the majority. It would help restore bipartisan balance to make continuing a filibuster, after a number of attempts at cloture, contingent on a few cross the aisle votes.