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Should lobbyists be Banned from Giving Gifts to Federal Employees?

Banning Gifts to Lobbyists: Who Represents the Public Interest?

From time to time I post a blog on both of my websites because they deal with an ethical issue in general and ethics in the workplace specifically. This is one of those times. For the purpose of full disclosure, the same blog was posted today on www.ethicssage.com.

Here are some numbers for you to think about – 65%, 36%, 16%, 15%, and 9%.

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According to CBS News, ten years ago, as many as 65% of Americans actually liked their elected officials. But as Congress has gotten more and more dysfunctional, its popularity has fallen dramatically to today's all-time low - a 9%  approval rating.

Even the hated IRS has an approval rating four times that (36%)!

At the height of the oil spill, the BP oil company - at 16% - had a higher approval rating than Congress.

So does Paris Hilton, who scores 15%.

These findings came before "60 Minutes" aired the story a couple of weeks ago revealing that Congress has given its members the right to use inside information not available to the public to buy and sell stocks and bonds. Moreover, it follows the colossal failure of the Super Committee, and Congress failed the test of representing the people's interests. Is it possible that the next survey might show Congresses approval rating at or near 0%? I still think that would be too high.

Business groups are attacking the Obama administration over a plan that would bar lobbyists and their employers from giving gifts to federal employees — including picking up the tab for government workers to attend conferences and trade shows. The proposal is aimed at preventing lobbyists from exerting undue influence over executive branch employees charged with regulating everything from automobile safety to air quality, but trade groups have launched an all-out offensive to kill the proposal.

"It's a slap in the face of business from an administration that says it wants to work with industry to create more jobs," said John Graham, president and CEO of the American Society of Association Executives, which represents about 23,000 trade-group executives. Graham's organization has launched a website, along with Twitter and Facebook campaigns, to fight the measure. More than 450 groups have signed onto the organization's letter of protest, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and National Association of Realtors.  

The ethical question is why not let businesses pick up the tab for federal government employees to attend conferences and trade shows? It’s simply this. Any federal government employee who might become involved in decision-making that affects specific businesses or business groups must be beyond reproach with respect to making unbiased, independent decisions. A conflict of interest exists when a member of Congress hears testimony and votes on an issue that affects organizations that used lobbyists to influence the way the member votes.

In a 1992 decision, Quill v. North Dakota, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that retailers are exempt from collecting sales taxes in states where they have no physical presence, such as a store, office, or warehouse. Let’s assume Congress is debating whether to require all states to impose sales taxes on e-commerce (e.g. Amazon) to level the playing field with brick and mortar businesses. Right now it’s up to each state government to make that decision. If one state imposes such a tax while another does not, Amazon simply threatens to move its distribution center to a tax-free friendly state.

Let’s further assume that a lobbyist representing Amazon’s interests -- and we can include other e-commerce vendors such as overstock.com – decides to pay the expenses of key Congressional decision-makers to attend a trade show that features purveyors of on-line merchandise. The expenses include coverage of airfare, the best hotel in town, and a $1,000 per day food and sundry items allowance. Can the member of Congress (let’s call him Sneaky Pete) make an objective decision on the taxing issue? In my mind it doesn’t matter. Independent decision-making is based as much on the appearance whether Sneaky will, in fact, make an objective decision. We won’t know if the decision made was based on objective decision-making until after the decision is made. The point is to avoid the possibility that a biased decision will be made by banning gifts to lobbyists up front.

According to a report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), $3.51 billion was spent on lobbying in 2010. This money does not improve our economy in any meaningful way especially at a time when we are swimming in a sea of debt. Who represents the public interest in these matters – you and me?  Who are our lobbyists? Certainly not those we vote into office as our Senators and Representatives. If that were the case, Congress would not have a 9% approval rating.

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on November 28, 2011

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