... and letting voters be the judge

Sens. John McCain and Russ Feingold and everyone running for a leadership position in the House of Representatives are out to reform the way Washington does business, but many of their proposals seem more calculated to generate headlines than change.

Sens. John McCain and Russ Feingold and everyone running for a leadership position in the House of Representatives are out to reform the way Washington does business, but many of their proposals seem more calculated to generate headlines than change.

There are crooks, shady characters and con men in every profession. They can be found among the ranks of aluminum-siding salesmen, energy executives and labor leaders as well as in Washington.

Not every rogue was able to get a job with Enron, so in recent years some have migrated to Washington. A few got here by running for Congress, while others came to hang out their shingles as political consultants, lobbyists or even lawyers.

If men were angels we wouldn’t need to protect ourselves from such folks, but they aren’t and we do. We audit businesses, look over the shoulders of labor leaders and refer questionable retailers to Better Business Bureaus. We’ve outlawed stock scams, illegal trading and bribery as well as extortion and fraud.

However, sometimes those most anxious to protect us go too far by acting as if every man and woman we deal with is a crook. In the process, we demonize whole professions. Thus we seem to believe that anyone who goes into, say, politics or the energy business is up to no good. One can almost hear mothers warning their sons and daughters not to grow up to be oil executives, members of Congress or lobbyists.

We shouldn’t forget even for a moment that there are 535 men and women serving in the House and Senate and literally thousands of lobbyists running around town, representing every conceivable “interest” one can imagine, from the Girl Scouts to waste management. Contrary to Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid’s claims, the vast majority of them are honest, hardworking professionals, regardless of party or ideological predilection.

Ken Lay and his friends at Enron don’t represent the norm within the U.S. energy industry any more than Duke Cunningham and Jack Abramoff represent the average member of Congress or Washington lobbyist. Those who suggest otherwise seem to me to be less interested in dealing with reality than generating self-serving headlines.

Criminal activity should be punished, of course, and there is much to be said for reforming the way Congress and those who do business with it operate, but suggesting that congressmen routinely trade their votes for lunch or a free golf game is goofy.

Real reform should be based on transparency. The problem with the hated earmarks, for example, is not that every one of them is as ridiculous as those that have been targeted by the reformers but that they are often snuck into legislation late at night and voted on without anyone really knowing much about them. In many cases, those voting for them don’t even know who sponsored them.

Thus an earmark for “transgender” studies in San Diego was recently included in a bill and passed, but when it was later “discovered” no one would own up to having authored it. As one congressman told me, the earmarks should at least themselves be earmarked so that a member’s colleagues, the press and the voters back home know just how their elected representative is spending their money.

Sens. Tom Coburn and McCain are promising to shine the light of day on all earmarks by forcing floor attention on them, which would, in turn, force their authors to stand up for them. That’s not a bad idea and would make many members think twice before suggesting foolish proposals that benefit virtually no one. Others have suggested prohibiting the insertion of earmarks once a bill has reached the conference committee or even during full-committee mark-up. Not bad suggestions either.

But banning earmarks altogether is not likely to happen and might not accomplish all that much anyway. Most don’t involve new money but simply instruct the executive branch to spend a certain amount of its appropriated money in a manner desired by Congress. Eliminating the earmarks will not automatically “save” the taxpayer any money at all but will shift the decisionmaking power on how appropriated money is spent from an elected official acting on the perceived needs of those he or she represents to a bureaucrat who represents no one.

Either the congressman or the bureaucrat is capable of wasting money and making stupid decisions, but some of the reforms being proposed would at least give voters the knowledge they need to deal with the congressman.

Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union, is a managing associate with Carmen Group, a D.C.-based governmental-affairs firm (www.carmengrouplobbying.com).