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The Washington Cesspool

This is ridiculous. Lawmakers and lobbyists are pigs at the trough, as this Washington Post story makes clear: Getting Around Rules on Lobbying, Despite New Law, Firms Find Ways To Ply Politicians.

At the beginning of the year, American Radio Works producer Sasha Aslanian and I did an hour-long documentary called Imperial Washington. We "pulled" it after several weeks because ethics reforms passed in D.C. made some of the charges out-of-date. Well, Congress and lobbyists are up to their old tricks. Here are some excerpts from the piece. Sad to say, the basic thrust holds.

CF: We're here at Reagan National Airport and members of Congress can just drive here, park their cars for free and get on an airplane. It's nice, convenient and cheap.

It must be nice not to lose your car in the airport ramp like I often do. Members of Congress do come and go a lot, so may be they need this convenience. Still, it's a symbol of the red carpet treatment members of Congress enjoy in Washington. I came here to learn whether an accumulation of privileges like this insulates lawmakers from the people they serve--people like you and me. I also wanted to know if a perk-driven lifestyle made it easier over time to let your ethics slip, and succumb to the power of comfort and money.

On my cab ride into town I glimpsed the Capitol Dome. Corny as it sounds, every time I see it I still feel like Jimmy Stewart in "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington:"

Jimmy Stewart: "Look! Look! There it is!"

Capitol Hill is like a small city all its own in Washington D.C.--sort of like America's Vatican. Senators and Representatives and their staff have their own subway...

(SFX subway)...

They never have to leave their office complex to get a haircut... or go to the bank ...or visit their kids in day care.

Members even have their own elevators...

We also noted how well of members of Congress are compared to the average citizen when it comes to basic benefits.

But there's more than automatic pay raises. Members also enjoy a good health care plan and a gold-plated pension. Retired Members even get cost of living adjustments to their pensions, a benefit fewer than one in ten private sector pensions offer. Members and their staff have their own health club.....

Sepp: Those kinds of things build a culture of conceit in Congress that very had to address, very hard to wipe out.

Pete Sepp is with the National Taxpayer's Union, a conservative watchdog group that tracks government spending.

Sepp: you run into a situation where they become so insulated, so isolated that they fail to make public policy that is truly in the interest of tax payers.....

This is my speculation, and I think there is something to it.

I wonder if members of Congress aren't susceptible to what business historian Richard Tedlow calls the "derangement of power." He used it to describe very successful corporate chieftains. They're surrounded by people who make sure they don't have to deal with many of the minor annoyances of life.... like standing in line for postage stamps. Members can send mail for free.

And they're actually exempt from some of the pesky laws they pass for the rest of us....

And here is the kicker to the piece:

Still, hurrying past those free parking spots at Reagan-National Airport on my way back home, I couldn't help but wonder. What if members of Congress didn't get those good pensions or that premium health care plan? Would things be different for the rest of us? Would a less imperial Washington care more about the half of the American workforce with no pension? Would a less-privileged Congress care that 16% of Americans--mostly children--go without health insurance? I think they might. I really do.

Although I still believe in the power of sunshine, stories like the Washington Post's makes me believe more drastic action is required.

Okay, shutting down an activity plagued by abuse is worthwhile. But in thinking over the past hour--hidden perks, slick lobbying campaigns, the plush travel--I'm struck how much of what goes on comes down to shadows and sunlight. Shadows, because members of Congress and lobbyists alike prefer keeping the average voter in the dark, husbanding information. But with more sunshine--putting everything out on the Internet, embracing openness, disclosure-- voters can decide whether activities pass the smell test. Power and privilege abhor sunshine. That's why Justice Louis Brandeis call "sunshine the best disinfectant".

About the author

Chris Farrell is the economics editor of Marketplace Money.
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