DENVER — One of Barack Obama’s only legislative accomplishments in the U.S. Senate is the Legislative Transparency and Accountability Act, which passed in September 2007. When he announced his candidacy in Springfield, Ill., Obama called the bill “the most sweeping ethics reform since Watergate.” Critics from left and right, however, have called it a chilling threat to free speech. This is something to boast about?
Obama’s ethics bill sounds good on paper: “strict bans on receiving gifts and meals from lobbyists; new rules to slow the revolving door between public and private sector service.” But once this lofty rhetoric hits reality, it crumbles. Just as Obama can’t define a “windfall profit,” defining “gifts” and “meals” also proves difficult.
The First Amendment protects “the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.” That’s what lobbying is. Under Obama’s ethics law, groups sponsoring events here in Denver have to consult a lawyer at every step. The New York Times reports:
Depending on the circumstances, breakfasts are limited to bagels, rolls and croissants, while proteins like eggs are prohibited. What is more, rules differ for events that are deemed to be “widely attended” — something that has more than 25 diverse attendees but is not a ballgame or a concert.
“People are trying to organize parties around conflicting and inscrutable rules,” said Jan Baran, a campaign finance expert at Wiley Rein, a Washington law firm. “It drives the lawyers crazy to give advice. We are having to decide if a group is a cover band, a string quartet or a name band.”
So, for example, if farmers from Minnesota want to throw a party for lawmakers, and they serve steak and cheese quesadillas and have the band Styx provide entertainment, then any lawmaker who attends is violating the new ethics law. But if the Minnesota farmers serve only cheese quesadillas and a Styx cover band provides entertainment, Washington has been saved from corruption.
Even Democrats who voted for the legislation recognize how silly the law is. Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY) told The Hill, “the whole thing is ridiculous,” the result is a “hodgepodge of inconsistency” that has created “artificial restrictions which are arbitrary.” These words ought to be remembered when we consider other liberal priorities: allowing Congress to both compete in the health care market while also setting its rules and creating a “market” for carbon out of thin air.
Denver is awash in special-interest money this week. The Denver Post reports that Obama’s big-money donors are being offered premier seats to his acceptance speech at Invesco Field.
Top fundraisers for the “Obama Victory Fund” were offered club-level seats through the end of Monday for $1,000 apiece. … The Obama campaign and its partners at the Democratic National Convention Committee have 8,300 club-level seats. If all were purchased, it could mean a cash infusion of $8.3 million.
Many in the progressive community are a bit disillusioned, including netroots activist Chris Bowers, who wrote: “It is hard for me to swallow that Democrats have reaped a windfall from corporate lobbyists since taking office, and then to hear about how we have passed great new ethics reforms. It isn’t making a lot of analytical or emotional sense.” Reminds us of the last paragraph of a certain George Orwell novel:
Twelve voices were shouting in anger, and they were all alike. No question, now, what had happened to the faces of the pigs. The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.
- Russian President Dmitry Medvedev appealed to the leaders of China and four Central Asian countries for support Thursday amid the fallout over Moscow’s invasion of Georgia and its recognition of the country’s separatist regions.
- According to Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, Russians had been planning an invasion of his country for weeks — even months.
- Scientists have transformed one type of fully developed adult stem cell directly into another inside a living animal, a startling advance that could sidestep the political and ethical quagmires associated with embryonic stem cell research.
- The U.S. military will hand over security responsibilities to Iraqi forces next week in Iraq’s western province of Anbar.
- A growing financial scandal in the 2-million-member Service Employees International Union has prompted a federal criminal investigation into the labor organization’s largest California local.