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Senator Stevens and the "goo-goo" types

"Goo-goos"--good government advocates--have been fighting corruption in government through endlessly tweaking campaign financing reform laws and ethics laws for at least 40 years.

I haven't noticed all that much progress.

And I think there's a reason for that. The only good way to fight corruption is to see to it that government has far less power. There's relatively little corruption of local dog-catchers. But if you're trying to influence a U.S. Senator, with power over literally billons of dollars, there are far too many inexpensive ways to do it.

Consider this scenario. You, a senior Senator, want to have some work done on your vacation home. You hire some people you've known a long time. You look them straight in the eyes and state, "I'm personally paying for all of this. You be absolutely sure that you send me all the bills for this work, you hear?" Your associates agree. They send you an ample number of bills which you pay, pay every penny of.

But suppose they, unbeknownst to you, just happen to bill you for only half the work. And you don't therefore report the value of their "contribution".

This seems to summarize the complaint, and the defense, in the current case against Alaska Senator Ted Stevens.

Please note: I'm not asserting Stevens is innocent. What I do assert is, that in the absence of a tape or a document in which Stevens admits knowing that he didn't pay for the full value of the work, it should be real darn hard to convict him.

Is he supposed to know the exact value---or have even a rough idea--of home repairs? We ask that our representatives know a lot, but they surely can't know everything.

Is the answer supposed to be that he shouldn't hire people who work for firms that have "business" before the U.S. Senate? Well, these days, what firm isn't actually, or potentially, affected by federal legislation? And besides, why shouldn't he do business with people he knows? Are legislators supposed to live in a friendless bubble?

If the answer is that he can hire friends to do the work, but he should have an independent party prepare a cost estimate, I see problems with that, too. Suppose Senator Stevens had said, "Fine, I'll pick a contractor at random from the Boston phone book, all the way on the other side of the country, and fly him out to audit the cost of the work." One: the very independence and remoteness of such an auditor makes the accuracy of the estimate suspect. The auditor doesn't have as much first-hand information about local costs and conditions. But, more importantly, two: suppose Senator Stevens bumps into his distinguished colleague Senator Kennedy in the Senate cloakroom one day. And Stevens says, "I just hired Mr. X to audit the cost of my home contractor. You know him?" Senator Kennedy replies, "Yes, I do. He's very good, Ted." And after they go their separate ways, Senator Kennedy calls the Boston contractor and asks how business is, and the contractor replies he's auditing a job for Stevens, and Kennedy notes, just for the sake of conversation, that Stevens is a good friend. The contractor prepares an audit that just happens to match what Stevens has paid, and weeks, months, maybe years, later, Kennedy asks Stevens for a tiny favor because "you owe me one". Nudge, nudge; wink, wink.

To say nothing of--I can't remember where I saw this--regular poker games in which lobbyists lost amazingly consistently to a particular politician. Or lobbyists helping get legislation passed that makes land more valuable that just happens to be owned by the politician's adult sons. And so on.

I'm not the first person to argue this: either restrict government power or live with a lot of corruption. The goo-goos are largely tilting at windmills.

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