It’s time for Congress to update its own ethics laws

In a recent interview with Capitol Bells, Issue One’s Chief of Policy, Programs and Strategy Meredith McGehee made the case that recent accusations and cases of conflicts of interest on Capitol Hill should lead the 115th Congress to update its existing ethics laws.

Meredith McGehee implores Congress to Update its Own Ethics Laws

I’m Meredith McGehee, Chief of Policy, Programs, and Strategy at Issue One. Let’s talk about the 115th Congress, money in politics, lobbying and ethics!

@grayson.kennedy: Thanks for joining us, Meredith. What is your number one priority for 2017? My number one priority is getting the Congress to pass updated ethics laws, which address ongoing conflicts of interest that end up decreasing public confidence in the institution.

Recently, Campaign Legal Center wrote a letter to the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE) citing the conflict of interest of Rep. Roger Williams (R-TX).

@vance.refrig: @meredith.mcgehee You’ve been at this for a while. Might I ask which particularly annoying ethics rules I have you to thank you?  You can thank me for the toothpick rule and for and for eliminating luxurious trips paid for by lobbyists to exotic locations.

@career.killer: Maybe this is an unpopular opinion, but I think that many ethics rules over the last decade have done more to diminish relations across the aisle and to drive fundraising into back rooms than it was to decrease conflicts of interest in Washington. Members of Congress don’t spend time together now. 

I agree there is a problem but I think you’re pointing at the wrong cause.  The overwhelming need to spend 4-5 hours a day fundraising and the increasing political tactic of demonizing the other party, instead of viewing them as the loyal opposition, has corroded the ability to work across the aisle. The fault does not lie with the ethics rules, at its core it is a money in politics problem.

@sam.ward: Public confidence is at an all time low in Congress, despite ethics reforms after 2006. Is the problem not enough reform or perhaps that confidence is based on results and ability to govern, not the appearance of impropriety?  The problem of public confidence is because MoC are increasingly AWOL when it comes to focusing on the public’s business. The fundraising demands are overwhelming for Members. The fear of outside groups influencing a race is palpable.

The end result is a political strategy that emphasizes partisan differences rather than getting the public’s business accomplished. Not helping this situation is the gerrymandering that is creating polarized Congressional districts in the House.

@mississippi.pepper: At this rate, nothing’s going to stop Members from spending all their time at fundraisers, there are a million ways to bypass giving limits. What’s the point?  The point is to change the system in a way that allows average Americans to feel as if they have a voice both in elections and in the political process. There is always a tension in politics between money and power. The challenge for Congress and for our country is whether we think as a people the current situation is acceptable or whether we (and our Representatives) have the testicular fortitude to change it.

@mississippi.pepper: BTW, I can’t think of any lobbying related prosecutions since Jack Abramoff. Is that a good thing or a bad thing? To be caught in a violation of the Lobbying Disclosure Act requires an individual to be pretty dumb, to put a point on it.  The LDA is easily evaded. Nowadays you can simply become a “strategic advisor” and escape disclosure and any of the other restrictions that are focused on lobbyists.

@royce.cali: How would you address Bill Shuster’s situation?  The Shuster situation is just another indication of why the House Ethics Committee needs to update and strengthen conflict of interest rules which haven’t been changed in 20 years (or longer).

Relationships b/w members of Congress and lobbyists certainly raise the appearance of a conflict of interest. And the public legitimately questions whether the lobbyist has special access.

@royce.cali: Were you flabbergasted when Shuster’s district re-elected him anyways?  No. First of all, the Shuster name from his father on to son is well-known and name identification is a huge advantage in a House race. Second, the Shusters are known for bringing home the bacon given their committee assignments.

It is difficult to get the public to vote on ethics issues because they already have such a low opinion of politicians.

@chace.pennyback: What’s your position on Hillary’s connections to their Foundation while Sec of State, and how do you feel about her plan to keep Chelsea running things there if she is President?  It is totally unacceptable for Chelsea to keep running things should Clinton become president.  I first began criticizing the Clinton Foundation several years ago for the interlinking of the foundation work and the Secretary’s position with the administration.

It’s worth noting that there are other members of Congress who maintain direct connections with foundations or universities. And solicit donations (for those foundations) at the same time they are accepting campaign contributions and being lobbied by those donors.  For Example, Sen. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and the University of Louisville. And Senator Leahy and the Leahy Center at the Univ. of Vermont.