Duty and Honor

Author: Gary Hart

Of the many reasons for public discontent with government generally and Congress particularly, none is more obvious than the wholesale movement of former members of both Houses of Congress into the lobbying business.  The massive lobbying industry is quick to remind us that lobbying is perfectly legal, or perhaps it is better to say not illegal, and that it has been going on from the beginning of parliaments.  That may be technically true, but it neglects the critical point that, when conducted by former members of Congress, and now increasingly their wives and children, lobbying is a sophisticated way of trading titles provided by voters for substantial personal gain.

No one truly believes that John Doe is as valuable to his lobbying firm and its corporate clients as former Senator John Doe is.  Senator John Doe adds prestige to the firm.  More importantly, he can open doors in the offices of his former colleagues.  In the lobbying business, that is pure gold.  The core and centerpiece of the lobbying business is ACCESS.  It is possible to count on the fingers of one hand the number of members of Congress who refuse to see a former colleague.

My relatively few years in elective office spanned a critical transition time.  Very few of my Senate colleagues from the 1970s became lobbyists.  For most of the great ones it was a matter of self-respect and personal honor.  By the time I retired from office in the later 1980s, not only former Senators but also their wives and sons and daughters were joining or forming lobbying firms and making a very great deal of money.  It would take more than blog space permits to analyze the reasons for this transformation.  But much of it had to do with the triumph of money over that earlier sense of personal honor.  No American has the right to trade an office and a title bestowed upon him or her by the people for personal gain.

Senators Michael Bennet and Jon Tester are sponsoring legislation to bar Senators from lobbying for life.  I would find it amazing if there were even committee hearings on this proposal, let alone a vote on the floor of the Senate.  But such a measure would do more to demonstrate that the current Senate is serious about recapturing its dignity, its respect, and its sense of honor than any other single step I can think of.  And perhaps most of all, it would go a very long way to restoring the confidence of the people in their government.

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13 Responses to “Duty and Honor”

  1. Bette S Baysinger Says:

    Mr. Hart,
    I like your style, and I always have. Government is so out of touch with the people that this bill might actually show us there is a chance for change here, that greed will not win. While money is a tool to be used for the benefit of being able to do what you need to do when you need to do it, and perhaps helps others do that, greed or love of money has turned government evil. Yes, evil is the correct term when defining evil as the manipulation of an others Absolute Free Will for you own personal benefit. While not all manipulation is evil, the actions of these lobbyists and their personal gain is evil in the way defined above. How are others being manipulated here, by these politicians, is it always nefarious? Is everything being lobbied for greed based? Can this practice of lobbying be turned into something that can facilitate a better society for all of us here? If not it needs to be abandoned completely, wouldn’t you say? Will that be the result of this bill if it passes, the complete abandonment of lobbying? That seems like it would be almost miraculous.
    Thank you.
    Bette S Baysinger

  2. William Norton Says:

    One way to bring lobbying back into control is to not let the lobbying be paid for with tax deductions by corporations. And to force the expenditure be approved by the stock holders. You can certainly make the argument that spending money on lobbies does not make products cheaper and does not make companies more competitive. If I want to participate in a lobbying effort as a private citizen I have to pay for it out of my own pocket. Companies should have to live by the same rules.

  3. Betsy Meier Says:

    Gary, this is really very disturbing to read. Of course we’ve all known this.
    I’m so glad that Michael Bennet and Tester are taking the bull by the horns and will at least try to do something.

  4. Phineas Says:

    Sen. Hart — you’re going to have to clear some major constitutional hurdles if you pass such a law. Don’t get me wrong: the “cashing in” is as distasteful to me as it is to you. But freedom of contract is something I see as even more important. Additionally, what the vast sums that ex-officials earn lobbying says to me is that it works. And isn’t that the point, that access can be bought? Until sitting elected officials are willing to jump off the cliff and say no to paid access, it really doesn’t matter to me who’s doing the lobbying.

  5. Mark Says:

    Senator Hart,

    As usual, your commentary is right on point. Thanks for being an articulate voice for the citizens, many of whom don’t really have a voice on their own. We certainly could use measures like the one proposed by Michael Bennet and Jon Tester to renew some sense of integrity to the Senate body.


  6. R Hope Says:

    These high-paying lobbyist positions for former politicians are nothing more than belated payoffs/bribes for past votes. A newly elected village idiot could figure out that if he goes along with, say, the drug industry, his reward will not be in heaven, but just 30 days after he leaves Congress. Some important Senators have wives with lobbying firms in Washington DC. In those cases, the rewards are immediate.

  7. PaulBott Says:

    Business is business and politics is politics, when you combine those too, add a lot of money, money that could be used for a higher good, you get the belly of a very dirty beast called Lobbyists. It should be banned forever, as it is no less a sin then Insider Trading, it is no less a discrace then going AWOL, and it is the lowest form of life on the planet.
    Senator Hart, I hope you will start something significant to bring this brand of “treason” to an end
    Paul Bott

  8. Randy Says:

    I completely agree with you, and because of the present situation, I really believe that such a law should be created.
    But, if congress can pass a law prohibiting an ex-congressman/woman from taking a specific new job, isn’t that sort of crossing a line of allowing the government to controll where a person can go for new employment?
    As an extreme example, not allowing an ex-employee from Microsoft to go work for Apple?
    I know it’s not an apples-to-apples situation, but in general, it is the government telling a private citizen the type of employment they can or cannot seek.

  9. Duty and Honor « 44-D Says:

    […] Op-ed by Gary Hart […]

  10. Nancy Halliday Says:

    For nearly forty years, since I worked on that first campaign for Senate and through all the years that followed, I have been trying to explain to people what a tragedy it was that the advent of the 24 hour news cycle terminated the career of one of the most ethical and politically brilliant men of a generation. As always this is right on point, and since hindsight is 20/20 and speculation takes us nowhere, we can only hope that your words do not fall on deaf ears. Please do not stop trying to make people listen, I understand the cost is to dear for you to attempt office again, but oh how I wish it could be different. We who knew you then did not follow blindly but with the knowledge that you were Right from the Start.

  11. Phineas Says:

    Ms. Halliday — that has got to be one of the best compliments I’ve ever read. We should all aspire to be so deserving.

  12. Neal Taslitz, Esq. Says:

    Ms. Halliday, I applaud your compliment of Senator Hart along with Phineas. There are indeed thousands of others who Senator Hart has inspired over the past several decades and would agree with you. David Axelrod, President Obama’s Senior Politcal Advisor, said in 2009 that Senator Hart was the person who gave him the best advice in his career.

    Senator Hart’s comments on the tragic loss of “duty” and “honor” by public servants demonstrate the need to expand the federal criminal law that is referred to as “Theft of Honest Services by Public Servants”.

    While it is not presently illegal for elected offcials to use the private parties or corporations and trade associations, to influence public policy decisons, the funds must be used properly. Too many public figures use campaign contributions from PACs for personal travel as well as other personal matters that are not proper expenditures under the law. Perhaps if more public servants were prosecuted for their improper use of the “campaign” funds their attitudes would change, as the threat of serving 5 or 10 years in prison tends to be more of a deterrent than a fine than restitution or a fine.

    Several elected officials from Palm Beach County, and elsewhere, are now serving prison terms for “theft of honest services by public servants.”

    Closer scrutiny of lobbyists, and the improper use of “contributions” to public servants is a good place to start, if we want to return to the days where “duty” and “honor” were the principles that mattered more than personal financial “bribes”, which is what the current system encourages under a mask deception.

  13. Michael Califra Says:

    It is impossible to imagine men like Senator Hart, Mike Mansfield, George McGovern or Mark Hatfield becoming industry lobbyists. Yet today we see decent politicians like Dick Gephardt or Tom Daschle selling out to K Street all the time. No doubt the “greed is good” ethos that has dominated our national consciousness for the last 30 years has overtaken duty and honor, or even shame. The behavior we’ve seen on Wall Street is just one example. That same mentality in Washington is just as disastrous for the country. The government is no longer capable of problem solving in a rational way; that is in a way that doesn’t pad the profits of the industries that hire the lobbyists who have the access. The health care bill is just one glaring example of that. Ordinary citizens and the national interest are shut out of the debate. Unless the situation is corrected, and soon, with strict laws and tough penalties that are enforced, the country will continue its path to plutocracy (if we aren’t there already). Unfortunately, it’s as difficult to imagine the problem being effectively dealt with as it is to imagine Sam Ervin lobbying for ExxonMobil.

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