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The "Toothpick Rule"

by Zachary Roth
Washington Monthly

Lately, Washington has been getting a crash course in the "toothpick rule." No, it's not the latest FAA ruling about what you can and can't include in your carry-on luggage. Instead, it's a bizarre-sounding but increasingly popular way for the capital's influence-peddlers to get around new restrictions on access to lawmakers.

When the Democratic Congress passed lobbying- and ethics-reform measures last month, it barred lawmakers and their aides from accepting almost all meals from lobbyists. But, as the Wall Street Journal reported [subscription required] recently, hors d'oeuvres—including any food eaten standing up and using a toothpick or one's fingers—remain kosher. The result, say some observers, has been nothing more consequential than a change in the menu. Out: pasta and steak dinners. In: risotto balls, and blinis with smoked salmon and crème fraiche. Congress feels cleaner already.

Switching from entrees to appetizers isn't the only way that lobbyists are getting around the new rules. According to another recent report [subscription required], this one in the New York Times, in the last two months lawmakers have invited lobbyists to pay for a California wine-tasting tour, a trip to Disney World, weekend golf tournaments, concerts by the Who and Bob Seeger, and a range of other fun-filled (if golf and Bob Seeger are your bag) outings. The arrangements are legal because the new rules don't restrict political contributions, meaning lobbyists can still pay to attend a fund-raiser. So rather than paying for the lawmaker directly on these trips, the lobbyist will instead contribute to a political fund-raising committee set up by the lawmaker—which then picks up the tab.

Still, the rules may be riddled with loopholes, but at least the new Democratic Congress isn't selling face time with its legislative leaders in return for lobbyists' campaign cash as nakedly as the GOP did, right? Not quite. Last week, the Washington Post reported that Democrats have begun an ambitious round of early fund-raisers, many of which are designed to bring key committee chairs together with lobbyists for the industries they regulate. For instance, according to the Post, Barney Frank, who chairs the House financial services committee, recently showed up for a fund-raiser in Charlotte—home to two of the largest bank companies in the country—to let donors in on his plans for upcoming banking legislation. The goal of the blitz is to raise between $650,000 and $1 million for each of the party's most endangered members—a lofty total for the end of an election cycle, let alone the start of one.

Don't get me wrong: the Democrats' ethics and lobbying reform package marks a major shift from the "culture of corruption" that characterized Republican rule, and will no doubt help cut out the kind of naked influence buying practiced by the likes of Jack Abramoff and Duke Cunningham. But it's now clearer than ever that restricting the lobbyist-lawmaker relationship, by itself, won't get at the root of Washington's influence problem. "The real way that people develop access and influence on the Hill is through campaign contributions," Bill Andresen, a prominent Democratic lobbyist and former Hill staffer, recently told me. "So as long as lobbyists are giving and raising money for Democrats in Congress, then that's how they develop their relationships, and that's how they get things done."

In other words, the only real solution is to largely remove private money from politics through a system of public financing. And as we argued in "How to Finish Off the GOP Machine," our January cover story, Democrats are shooting themselves in the foot by not getting behind the issue. Just like we predicted, the political benefits they accrued from the lobbying-reform measure are quickly dwindling amid the rash of recent headlines, like those above, that suggest how little has changed. If, by 2008, Democrats want voters to believe there's a difference between the parties on issues of corruption and influence, they'll need to back comprehensive reform of the campaign finance system.

Even if it means disappointing the toothpick lobby.


Zachary Roth is an editor of the Washington Monthly.




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Washington Scoop

February 28, 2007

Duly Noted

"The guy has no core, his only principle is winning the presidency. He likes to call his campaign the 'Straight Talk Express.' Well, down here we call it the 'Forked Tongue Express.'"

- Rob Haney, GOP state committeeman in Arizona's District 11—John McCain's home district—telling the Nation what he thinks of the senator.


Poll Talk: Opine on Condi

"Do you approve or disapprove of the way Condoleezza Rice is handling her job as secretary of state?"

Approve

58%

Disapprove

31%

Unsure

10%

Source: ABC News/Washington Post. Feb. 22-25, 2007


What We're Reading

Writing in the New York Review of Books, Michael Tomasky urges Democrats not to set their sights too low. He agrees with Chuck Schumer that the party has been presented with the opportunity to claim the political affections of the middle class. But he's uneasy about the modest prescriptions issued by strategists like Schumer and Rahm Emanuel to achieve this goal. Tomasky writes:

"The question arises whether that opportunity is best seized by deciding what average people want and giving it to them, or whether, in addition to that, leaders should aim a bit higher... It is one thing to speak to people as consumers and as parents. But is it possible to speak to people as citizens, asking them to participate in something that has a larger national purpose?"

Texas has gotten tough on illegal immigrants, reports the Los Angeles Times, pushing to deny illegals numerous state services.

Notes the Times: "The Texas Republican Party added hard-line immigration language to its platform last year in response to the demands of its conservative base. It included the line 'No amnesty! No how. No way.'" This is a 180 degree change from the mentality that reigned during the '90s, when George W. Bush was governor, and it's no wonder the president has been caught off-guard. An October 2006 Washington Monthly piece by Rachel Morris—"Borderline Catastrophe"—shows how costly this approach is likely to be to the GOP.

Frank Gaffney, the neoconservative pundit recently busted by Salon's Glenn Greenwald for using a fabricated Lincoln quote, is at it again. On a recent radio show he claimed that US weapons inspectors did find WMD in Iraq after the fall of Saddam. Though the mainstream press won't admit it, said Gaffney, the official report of the Iraq Survey Group (ISG) specifically mentions finding "hot production line for chemical and biological agents," agents the regime planned to place "into aerosol cans and perfume sprayers for shipment to the United States and Europe." So, did the mainstream press miss this smoking gun? Um, no. Blogger Jonathan Schwartz read the whole ISG report, found the passages that form the basis of Gaffney's claim, and discovered that (surprise, surprise) Gaffney was cherry-picking uncorroborated single-source evidence. These guys never quit.


Learn more at www.SuperCamp.com now.

Blogging Animal: Kevin Drum

BAD TEACHERS....Over at bloggingheads.tv, Mickey Kaus and my boss are talking about whether it should be easier to fire bad teachers. Naturally this turns into an argument about union busting (Mickey's all for it) vs. figuring out a way to work with unions on this (Paul's position).

Unfortunately, the conversation never really got to the key issue (though it cropped up momentarily): how do you decide who the bad teachers are? My background is all private sector, and it's certainly true that private sector managers have a lot more freedom than public school principals when it comes to hiring and firing decisions. I couldn't fire someone just because I felt like it, but neither did I have to produce reams of documented evidence of highly specific transgressions. If someone wasn't working out, all it took was a written warning and some counseling to try to get them on track. If that didn't work, they were out.

Needless to say, this can be unfair—as I'm sure some of the people I fired would agree. But the key thing that made it workable is that everyone who worked for me actually worked for me. There may not have been any numerical measures of how they were doing, but they did write reports, solve problems, work with customers, launch new products, put on trade shows, and so forth. These were all concrete work products that could be evaluated on a regular basis. My individual judgment—like any school principal's -- might be suspect, of course, but at least I had plenty of up-close-and-personal interaction on which to base my judgment.

This is the part I've never figured out when it comes to teachers. I suppose principals can visit classrooms occasionally to observe teachers, but that's sporadic and inconclusive. There are test scores, but those are problematic even on a long-term basis, let alone as the evidence for a short-term work evaluation. What else is there? Parent complaints? Peer review? It's pretty thin stuff. The fact is that principals simply aren't in close contact with their teachers on a regular basis.

But I'm curious to hear comments about this. Is this wrong? Do principals know more than I'm giving them credit for? Are there reasonable metrics for judging performance even without the advantage of daily supervision and concrete work products? Bottom line: if bad teachers really are a big problem, how do we identify them? How do we decide who the bad teachers are?

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