Hillary Clinton on Barack Obama and Ethics Reform

13 January 2008

On her website, Hillary Clinton says the following in big, bold letters:

Sen. Obama's Bill Allows Lobbyists To Wine and Dine Members of Congress, As Long As They Are Standing Up

At the recent Democratic debate in New Hampshire, moderator Charles Gibson said something similar about Obama's ethics reform bill:

GIBSON: They can now buy food for members of Congress if the members of Congress are standing up. That's my understanding of what the rules have changed. You can't sit down and eat, but you can stand up and eat. Tell me why that's change.

OBAMA: Here's what we did. They can't buy meals. They can't provide gifts. They can no longer lend corporate...

GIBSON: They can have huge parties for you as long as you're standing up.

However, both are mischaracterizing the ethics reform bill. First of all, from these comments, you'd think that the ethics reform bill created a positive right to throw parties for Congressmen, where none existed before. That is simply not the case. Nor does the bill create a right for lobbyists to take Congressmen out to restaurants for some bizarre no-chairs dinner.

Go ahead and read the bill for yourself. You won't find any mention of a sitting/standing distinction. As political scientist Norm Ornstein (who helped write the McCain-Feingold Campaign Finance Reform Bill) has said:
"The notion that the ethics bill only allows lawmakers to eat with lobbyists while standing up is an urban myth -- as is the idea that the ethics and lobbying reform bill was more of the same. It was a tough and meaningful reform, the most meaningful in a generation."
In the end, what this bill did was significantly reduce the "wining and dining" of Congressmen (which is precisely why it has been so widely praised). Lobbyists can no longer buy meals for Congressmen under the bill. More public disclosure is required for lobbyist activity and funding. Mandatory disclosure is now required for earmarks.

It should also be noted that Clinton herself voted for the bill she is now mischaracterizing and mocking. Furthermore, if Clinton thinks the ethics reform bill didn't go far enough, why didn't she do something about it herself? After all, she is a United States Senator.

Now, it is true that lobbyists can still hold receptions where food of "nominal" value is served, but the serving of cookies and desserts poses far less of a conflict of interest than those prevalent under the previous ethics bill (which permitted lobster dinners). Perhaps the current ethics bill should have gone farther. But this isn't what Hillary Clinton is arguing. If this were her argument, it would apply with greater force to herself, since she did nothing to strengthen the ethics reform bill.

Furthermore, if Clinton believes that such "nominal" value foods amounts to unethical "wining and dining," how does she reconcile that belief with this:
Clinton, D-N.Y., plans to attend a dessert reception in Wilmette, Ill. -- minimum contribution: $1,000 per person -- at the home of Kevin Conlon, the founder and president of Conlon Public Strategies. Conlon is registered with the federal government to lobby for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra to receive federal subsidies.
Politics can be really frustrating sometimes.

UPDATE: Think On These Things has developed a chart comparing Obama and Clinton on Transparency, Lobbyists and Ethics. Obama seems to be the clear winner on this (although I wouldn't include a section asking whether the candidates "Passed ethics legislation at state level," since Clinton wasn't a state Senator, as Barack Obama was, and therefore wouldn't get a similar opportunity to do so).

UPDATE II: According to Newsday:
On ethics reform, Obama has pushed hard for creation of an independent panel to investigate allegations of ethics violations. Clinton has twice voted against it.
UPDATE III: Tom Hamburger has an interesting article at the Los Angeles Times titled "Clinton Rolls a Sizable Pork Barrel." You can probably guess what it's about.
Clinton supported those basic reforms, but she and other Democratic senators running for president balked at a proposal by Obama that would have required members to disclose their proposed earmark requests, not just those that were enacted into law.
This is a very serious issue in the presidential campaign, and it really boggles my mind that Hillary Clinton is attacking Barack Obama on ethics reform, of all things.

UPDATE IV: John McCain on Hillary Clinton and earmarks.

UPDATE V: This is what Clinton herself said when the ethics reform bill was passed:

But Clinton didn't always speak so negatively of the lobbying legislation. In fact, according to Clinton’s Jan. 18 speech from the Senate floor on the bill, she lauded it as "much needed and long-awaited." She even said it bans meals.

“The American public deserves to be certain that their elected officials are not being swayed by lavish gifts offered as quid pro quo for promoting special agendas,” Clinton said, per a search of the Library of Congress database. “To that end, gifts from registered lobbyists have no place in our legislative process. For that reason, I support the sweeping ban on lobbyist-paid gifts in the Senate bill. This ban includes not just meals but also gifts of travel and lodging, areas that have been the subject of notorious abuse."

She closed her speech this way: “The reforms contained in both the Legislative Transparency and Accountability Act of 2007 and the Lobbying Transparency and Accountability Act of 2007 enact much-needed and long-awaited reforms that move us toward those goals.”

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