Clean up Washington: mission impossible?

By Bernd Debusmann
February 11, 2009

Bernd Debusmann - Great Debate– Bernd Debusmann is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own. –

Can any U.S. administration avoid the fate spelled out in the following 12 words? “We were elected to change Washington and we let Washington change us.”

Thus spoke John McCain when he formally accepted the Republican party’s nomination for president last September. He then listed a number of reasons why the party had lost the trust of the American people, including that “some Republicans gave in to the temptations of corruption”.

Those temptations cut across party lines and stem from the relentless rise of a system, over the past three decades, which has given special interest groups enormous influence over policy-making and led to what Robert G. Kaiser, author of a just-published book on lobbying, calls “a kind of ethical rot in the nation’s capital”.

Barack Obama promised to stop that rot in his long campaign for the U.S. presidency but there is reason to wonder whether his rhetoric on the stump is more likely to be translated into action than similar pledges made by every president in recent history.

A day after he took office, Obama issued an executive order to stop the rot. “As of today, lobbyists will be subject to stricter limits than under any other administration in history,” he said in signing the order. “If you are a lobbyist entering my administration, you will not be able to work on matters you lobbied on, or in the agencies you lobbied during the previous two years. When you leave government, you will not be able to lobby my administration for as long as I’m president.”

Except for the exceptions. Tom Daschle, for example, Obama’s nominee for the Health and Human Services portfolio, who was not a registered lobbyist but made more than $5 million advising a variety of clients, including some in health-related industries. (Daschle withdrew over a separate matter; $120,000 in unpaid taxes).

Another exception to the no lobbyist rule: William Lynn, expected to be confirmed as Deputy Defense Secretary soon. Lynn’s career is an example of the “revolving door” through which former government officials walk into corporate offices and lobbying firms that pay them richly to influence their former government colleagues.

Lynn worked as the Pentagon’s chief financial officer from 1997 to 2001 and then joined Raytheon, one of the Pentagon’s most important suppliers, as a registered lobbyist from 2002 to last year. Now, about to walk through the revolving door in the opposite direction, he has promised to recuse himself from dealing with defense projects he lobbied for while working for Raytheon.

CAN OBAMA FIX “A BROKEN SYSTEM”?

So, will Obama change Washington and fix what he calls “a broken system” or will Washington change him?  For those who place high hopes in the new president’s ability to succeed where others have failed, a short trip back in history can provide some perspective. On January 22, 1993, another young president who swept into office on a platform of change signed an executive order on “the strictest ethics rules ever”.

That was Bill Clinton and the rules closely resembled those just announced by Obama.

Clinton’s rules did not curb the growth of what Kaiser calls “a new class in Washington, hustlers who exploited the public policy-making process for profit” and amassed wealth by passing “through the revolving door from public service to the ‘private sector’, the Washington euphemism for the influence-peddling industry.”

The industry is one reason why the United States does not score very well on an international index on corruption compiled annually by Transparency International, a corruption watchdog based in Berlin. The U.S. comes in at number 18, below European and Asian countries ranging from New Zealand and Singapore to Germany and Britain.

In his book (So Damn Much Money, the Triumph of Lobbying and the Corrosion of American government), Kaiser ascribes the growth of the system partly to the perennial need for money by congressional candidates to pay for their increasingly expensive election campaigns. In 1974, the average winning campaign for the Senate cost $437,000; by 2006, that had grown to $7.92 million. The cost of winning House campaigns grew from $56,500 to $1.3 million.

Congressmen face re-election every two years, which means they are perpetually on the stump. The money they need for this can be raised from the interest groups and individuals for whom the politician can do favors in the future.

Forty years ago, according to Kaiser, lobbying was done by a small group of lawyers and fixers. Today, it is a multibillion-dollar industry of thousands of people, including nearly 200 ex-senators and congressmen, both Democrats and Republicans. It’s an establishment and a culture that looks change-resistant – presidential promises notwithstanding.

You can contact the author at Debusmann@Reuters.com. For previous columns, click here.

40 comments

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And Craig, in your case, you’re talking about you flying TO a location to do business. In Mr. Bush’s case, we’re talking about flying “AWAY” from the location. Highly irrelevant. And next time I schedule a vacation and an important business meeting all of sudden that I can’t change, I certainly don’t appreciate it but rescheduling my vacation would be responsible action instead of calling from my hotel pool.

13 Feb 2009 I’m NOT alleging or accusing anything/anyone.
Merely asking reuters readers:
1) Every problem like financial crisis etc presents an
invaluable opportunity for US politicians or politicians
elsewhere for bribery taking thru lobbyists etc. In US case it can run into hundreds of billions of dollars in a
few politicians swiss accounts considering the fact that
trillions are involved; just ten percent (which to me seems too low; rather 30% will be a fair figure) in bribes will amount to hundreds of billions.
2) Now one politician seem to be always invoking names
of Lincoln, Martin Luther King and Gandhi to sell himself
to public. What is the reader’s opinion about it? Reasons
behind such selling??
3) Do you think it is pure madness like paying $3,000
for a pair of shoes (my shoes cost only $10 and I’m fully
satisfied with them); $150,000/- for a dress which hardly
to me worth $15; billion $ bonuses to some US banker
etc? ten trillions on wars and still there is no end in
sight; did anyone work for those ten trillions except the
politicians to line up their pockets and then loot,burn
the treasure and run at the end of political term and now
new and bigger ball games starts allover that will see
$ ten trillions more spent and much of it wasted/pocketed
??And that has brought the world to present because
just twenty years ago even talking about a $one billion
was a big thing. This very same Intel in 1972 seem to have filed for bankruptcy just for tens of millions of
$s ( a small sum compared the presently trillions being
talked about) No american seem to have worked except the
poor minimum wage earners
http://blogs.reuters.com/great-debate/20 09/02/11/clean-up-washington-mission-imp ossible/

Posted by jjmk4546 | Report as abusive

Today’s technology makes is possible for anyone to set up face-to-face meetings from almost any location without having to inconvenience either party. Since I can do business from any location and I can set up meeting with many different people in various location through-out the world in any given day I will go to a place where I feel most comfortable to conduct that business. Personally, if I was just elected president I don’t think I would feel comfortable conducting my most confidential business in Washington DC.
Too often I find there are too many distractions at an office, too many people trying to get my attention. I find that by choosing an outside location where I can limit who will have access to me; my productivity increases many times.
I think that is what happens to our elected officials, once elected they become a celebrity; many people are trying to get access and persuade them to support one thing or another. They must receive hundreds of invitations every week from other politicians, lobbyist, news people and even the public. The temptation to succumb to this celebrity must be tremendous.
All of this would be a terrible distraction from the work that needs done. To me to get anything done in this environment I would need to recluse myself from the celebrity and very carefully select the people that I want to talk to based on how they can contribute to the benefit of the people that I am serving.
In other words Brian, the president may be visible and well liked when they stay in Washington but that doesn’t mean he is getting things done. By the way all advanced economics is built upon the basic economics that at one time was taught in high school. The problems we are having in the economy are a direct result of straying away from the basics of good economics.

Posted by Craig Coal | Report as abusive

We’re so far off the original topic that I’d hate to continue this debate any further but…
Every president’s campaign promises made sense. But none hardly panned out the way they promised. Because president’s don’t make decisions alone. So what constitutes a good president is their ability to make deals. A president who purposely avoids the voice of people as you described is not what we need.
It is difficult to track back when the cause of the mortgage crisis began and it is naive to think that all economic plans take effect in 8 to 12 years but let’s assume that is true. But it certainly doesn’t take 8 to 12 years to notice the danger and take preventative measure. Bush had plenty time to prevent this only if he listened to the people who warned about the mortgage crisis. So you can try to apply your personal business ethics into this all you want but the fact is that Bush failed to listen and take action until it was too late. You keep claiming that he was busy doing business and listened to people better at his Ranch is like a “high school” kid who keeps failing class but claiming that he can concentrate and study better with TV on than at Library.

And by the way, you keep talking about today’s technology but how tech savvy do you think Bush was? You are not the president and neither am I so I’m not gonna assume I am a president but as a registered voter, I believe a president who actually walks the senate floor talking to every senator trying to make deals would be much more convincing than a president who sets up a video conference with a nice Ranch in the background because he can “concentrate” better.

There have been some excellent comments.. Let me give you my rules for the Congress…
First, the congress critters, both houses, shall by law be required to be in their district and available to their constituents 40 hours a week when they are not in Washington – just like you have to for your employer…
With instant teleconferencing they can be present for all votes right from their district office(s)… 90% present and voting will be required for any vote on legislation to be valid…
With instant teleconferencing any or all members can confer 24/7 amongst themselves…
Twice a year for 3 weeks each they will be in Washington to confer together…
They may not be lobbied by any person who is not a resident of their district…
ALL conversations involving their duties as elected officials WILL be recorded and publicly available…

OF course, the country will not come to its senses and let me structure a system that will represent the people instead of the powerful and well connected…

Posted by dr. o | Report as abusive

Yea verily! It is Mission Impossible.
Grant had the Union Pacific Railroad. Harding had the Teapot Dome. Nixon had Watergate. Jeb Bush purged over 57,000 likely Democratic voters in the 2000 election. For many more of these lapses in honesty and integrity over history, go here:
http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/28245651/

With a record like this, American politics will never be free of scandal and corruption. But that’s no different from any other government on earth. After all, governments and businesses are populated with humanity which is composed of predators and prey. It’s a good example of Darwinism – survival of the fittest. Only in Heaven and Hell are the good rewarded, the bad punished and all wrongs righted. Nice dream.

Posted by Ray | Report as abusive

I believe the problem in Washington stems from making deals rather than finding ways to protect the freedom of the American People. I think Dr O is on to something; perhaps sending our elected officials back home most of the year to talk with the people they are suppose to serve rather than the folks in Washington may give them a perspective into what they were sent to Washington to do.
I would rather have a president, senate and congress that read the bills that are before them and consider the impact these bills have on the people they are suppose to serve than one that makes deals to further an agenda that may or may not be for the benefit of the people.
Washington was established in a time when transportation was slow and it made sense to send our elected officials to a central location to work out the differences among the states. It may make sense now to get them out of Washington.

Posted by Craig Coal | Report as abusive

Here is quote that can give us some insight into how this credit crisis got started. It took ten years for it to become apparent adn now we get to deal with it:
“In the mid 90’s government fueled the fire of greed by relaxing accounting standards: allowing accounting firms to acquire auditing firms and reducing the number of IRS auditors. In 1998 congress passed a ruling that all but stopped IRS audits.
The combination of the conflict of interest of private accounting firms and the removal of the threat of IRS audits allowed too many corporations to adjust their books to reflect larger profits and hide loses so that the stocks would rise and their credit scores would go up, thus qualifying them for more borrowing”.

Posted by Craig Coal | Report as abusive

As for how to deal with lobbiests. They will wither and die if there is no incentive. Government employees must be prosecuted and spend jail time before they will stop taking bribes. Campaign spending must be limited and each candidate must limit his or her spending to what he or she recieves from the government. Campaign times, like vacations, must be limited so the work can be done. Then we will have representation for all the people and laws and spending will be based on merit and need instead of special interests

Posted by Fred Belz | Report as abusive

First off, think Term Limits for Congress.

Why? Because it gives them less time to be infected by lobbyists, and it gives interest groups less ROI on their investment should they successfully elect their candidate (hopefully enough to make them reconsider the effort & expense).

Another advantage is that it stops this nonsense of an entrenched Congress critter becoming the head of a important committee (e.g. Connecticut’s Dodd or MA Franks come to mind). With revolving representatives, there will be less hierarchy and more democracy (not necessarily a good thing… but the buying of Congress has proved so harmful that we HAVE to find alternatives).

We also need public financing of elections.
Candidates shouldn’t mortgage their souls to special interests to gain visibility initially.

All the above would do wonders to improve our lot.

Additional we need the media to step back up to the plate. You thoroughly deserted us during the Bush years!

As someone old enough to have lived through the Vietnam War years, I recall the important role the media played in the struggle to keep Gov responsible. Somehow the media went totally MIA in the buildup to the Iraq war.

Shame on you. Society needs your talents. We need a vibrant & questioning media & not this doormat for the status quo. Now the fact that a few Conglomerates have bought up the major media houses does come into play, (yet another reason for an independent Congress to watchguard our communal interests).

To summarize, things are thoroughly screwed up!
It seems the worst elements have risen to power.
All the more reason for the disenfranchised to reassert them(our)selves.

Yes… fight as though our lives depend on it;
because they probably do.

Posted by Steve | Report as abusive

Politicians enable money to multiply ; money enables politicians to qualify. No loser ; both winners. This is possible through lobbying. Who can eliminate LOBBY. Foolish.

Some very good posts here Bernd and for once, this time your comment is less Anti-American. Perhaps because the “hated Bush” has gone.

Where there’s money there will be greed and corruption. But still further, all COLLECTIVE human activity, tends to get corrupted. For instance, start a political party to protect the interests, for example, of the poor, and the Party ends up being more important than the people they were elected to represent. The members of the Party even make millions out of it. Including BHO and HRC. Depressing, but true.

Only a system that includes all, as INDIVIDUALS? can prosper.

How can we set up something like this? Maybe the internet, as someone else has said, can help.

As Maggie Thatcher said, “There is no such thing as Society – only individuals who part of something bigger. I’m sure I have quoted that wrongly, but I believe that that was the gist of what she was saying.

Posted by Spike | Report as abusive

It is interesting that as always we think that Masaia will change everything! sofar no Masaia has changed our lives and unless we understand it is the system not the person, we are going to face same problems regardless who the president is.
It seems humanity is not learning its lessons, at no time in history our elected ones represented us, they represent themselves, I have no idea when we are going to get that.
Washington and the world will change based on people’s understanding. Presidents will not and can not change Washington because they are part of Washington.

Posted by Robert | Report as abusive

I believe you are seriously underestimating President Obama. But get in line behind Hillary Clinton, John McCain and the Republican party.

You point to Daschle as an example but you are mistaken if you think Daschle stepped aside because of tax concerns. It was precisely because he made $5MM “selling” influence and access even if he was not a registered lobbyist that led to his withdrawal. As for William Lynn, he is one appointee amongst many, many. The exception does not dismantle the principle. Quite the opposite. Often it reinforces it. William Lynn happens to be in line with all the other Obama appointees — the best possible person for that position.

It’s good that you and others are underestimating President Obama. It gives him plenty of room to maneuver and continue doing what he promised to to do — what is best for this country.

If you keep shooting from the hip, Bernd, sooner or later, you will shoot yourself in the foot.

15 Feb 2009 Talking about Larry Bang’s post 14 Feb
7:50PM ALL these politicians SEEM to be on the take and
on the make. See following link
http://www.dawn.com/2009/02/15/top3.htm
Now the terrorist master Pakistan is saying it is
threatened by al-queda and taliban terrorists !
Do reuters readers think it is just a kind of scare-
mongering so that this foolish nation i.e US will give
billions to Zardari’s pakistan ( while previous billions were given to Musharaf’s pakistan; After all, now it seems to be Zardars’s luck) , to counter al-queda and taliban. man, get the f out of here; leave we poor people alone. But think of it: It’s ALL on the paper
which US keeps printing that gives US people almost everything cars,TV,airplanes,booze etc free without worr-
ying about work. Do you think now it is Obama and Clinton
time?

Posted by jjmk4546 | Report as abusive

Corruption in Washington stems from votes being bought.
I would think that’s one thing we could probably agree on.

During the last election, I recall reading an article detailing the contributions from major organizations. One of the big Wall Street investment firms had split their millions nearly evenly between Republication & Democrat (obviously a case of supporting the best government money can buy)!

With TARP1 and TARP2 it has become evident that those investments are paying dividends. In fact, look at our new (tax cheating) Treasury Secretary. Definitively part of the status quo that got us into this mess, yet Obama picked this insider of the financial oligarchy. And his first major initiative, proposing a Trillion more to protect the share/bond holders & richly payed execs of the major banks.

That money will come out of yours & mine pockets.

Posted by Bill | Report as abusive

The Borgen Project has some good info on the cost of addressing global poverty.

$30 billion: Annual shortfall to end world hunger.
$550 billion: U.S. Defense budget

If Kaiser is correct, and I believe he is, the only way to end the corruption, or at least curb it, is to deal with the rising cost of running for office and the constant stumping and fundraising elected officials must do. Instead of passing ridiculous campaign finance laws like McCain-Fiengold, we need to pass term limits. We have term limits for the president, why not for the congress?

Posted by David Johns | Report as abusive

Who knows what Obama is capabile of? He managed to launch another rescue plan in a such short time.. He already had the analisys, but I think he will manage somehow to fix a few problems in a few years.

Posted by Andreea | Report as abusive