John Feehery: Speaking Engagements


Getting Caught in The Changing Times

Posted on March 3, 2010
“The times, they are a changing.”

That anthem of the 60’s should always be in the minds of all Hill ethics counselors.

Charlie Rangel’s troubles with the Ethics Committee follow a familiar path.

I remember well in November of 1994, when an obscure challenger named Michael Patrick Flanagan knocked off a powerful Ways and Means Chairman who had delivered billions of dollars back to his hometown of Chicago.

Before 1992, Dan Rostenkowski’s picture was right next to the definition of power-broker in the Congressional dictionary.  Two years later, his picture was next to the word “crook”.

Rosty did what he had always done.  He used his office as a way to get a little extra money for his family.  The particular crime he was charged with was cashing in the stamps that his office had bought and using the money for his own personal pleasure.

It was penny-ante stuff.  Minor corruption with a little bit of legal graft.

But after the downfall of Jim Wright, what passed for minor graft no longer passed the muster in the country or the media.

Everybody loves Charlie Wilson now – thanks to the book and the movie -- but Wilson’s antics wouldn’t have survived in this ethics environment today.

Things change.

Before 1990, members of Congress could collect lots and lots of money for giving speeches.  And so many members did that.  They would speak before all kinds of associations and interest groups, and they would get big, fat honorarium checks.

But after Jim Wright resigned for his own ethics transgressions, Congress passed a law prohibiting the honoraria, and doubling the pay of the Members.  The public didn’t care that much about the honoraria.  They did care that they were getting their pay doubled.

1992 was a bad year for incumbents.  1994 was a worse year for incumbents.

After Newt Gingrich became Speaker, he banned members from taking any gifts from anybody.  Those rules were relaxed eventually, when it became clear that getting a tee-shirt from a constituent shouldn’t be against the rules of the House.

And as the rules were relaxed, so was the enforcement.

Eventually, Jack Abramoff went beyond the informal lines that the lobbying community set up for itself, and the rest was ethics history.

Times had changed, and several Republican members were forced to pay the price, including Bob Ney, Duke Cunningham and Tom DeLay.

When Nancy Pelosi came into power, she promised to drain the swamp and run the most ethical Congress in history.  Promises, promises.

She promised to never allow a K Street program, where members of Congress tell businesses who to hire (although it was amazing how many Republicans lost their jobs on K Street…coincidence?  Maybe.)

She promised to end the practice of lobbyists paying for Congressional trips.   That was the promise that tripped up Charlie Rangel, and is sure to ensnare many other members of the Congressional Black Caucus.

The President took up that theme, and promised to ban all lobbyists from ever serving in his Administration.  Ironic, isn’t it, that the President’s agenda is the best thing that has ever happened to the lobbying profession?

The next thing that Congressional watchdogs are going to go after is Congressional Delegation trips (CODELs).  CODELs are usually overseas trips taken by Members of Congress to meet with foreign dignitaries, collect some facts and maybe take in some sight-seeing.

I believe CODELs play an important role in building better relationships around the globe and within the Congress.   But it doesn’t really matter what I think.  These trips are seen as boondoggles by the voters.   Currently the Wall Street Journal is having a field day exposing the locations and the bar-bills of latest Congressional travel.

Pretty soon, times will change and these trips will be a thing of the past.

Perhaps the biggest scandal that faces Congress comes with campaign fundraising.

The scandal is not that representatives take money from lobbyists.  The scandal is that they take up so much time raising money from lobbyists.  That time that should be better spent doing their jobs.

But the sad fact is that you can’t really do your job and become a truly effective member of Congress unless you raise a ton of money.  It is how the game is played.

The FBI has been investigating the connections between campaign fundraising and legislating.  I doubt they will be able to prosecute anybody for what is common practice on the Hill.  But the American people are growing tired of the game.   And that is why they are so angry at just about every incumbent.

With each successive wave of reform, the productivity of the Congress falls off, the partisanship increases, and the approval rating for Congress drops down.

Charlie Rangel is just one more victim of the changing times.  He did what he always used to do, and now, as a result, he may lose his position as Chairman, his job as Congressman, and if the FBI had its way, he would spend some quality time in the same kind of jail that housed Rosty for a few years.

Maybe they should just name it The Way and Means cell.

Subscribe to the Feehery Theory Newsletter, exclusively on Substack.
Learn More