Congress’s Landed Gentry


So what is it with members of Congress and land deals? Sen. Harry Reid failed to disclose what the Associated Press describes as “a $1.1 million windfall on a Las Vegas land sale” on property he hadn’t owned for three years. “The complex dealings allowed Reid to transfer ownership, legal liability and some tax consequences to Brown’s company without public knowledge, but still collect a seven-figure payoff nearly three years later,” reporters John Solomon and Kathleen Hennessey wrote. Rep. Charles Taylor, meanwhile, “owns at least 14,000 acres of prime land in western North Carolina. He’s also the local congressman. So when he steers federal dollars to his district, sometimes he helps himself, too,” John Wilkes reported in the Wall Street Journal (the story is available online here). Sen. Bob Menendez has his lease deal with nonprofit for which he’s secured federal funds, while House Speaker Dennis Hastert has his own profits from earmarks and land deals. The real estate dealings of Rep. Gary Miller and Rep. Alan Mollohan have also come under scrutiny (as noted in the Journal article).

Members of Congress file personal financial disclosure forms that are supposed to alert the public of any potential conflicts of interest a lawmaker might have. The foregoing examples suggest that the disclosures are inadequate for the purpose; that members can have substantial personal interests in government policy that are not apparent from looking at the disclosure forms, or that members can file incomplete disclosures or altogether leave out information so that that public is left unaware of a member’s business dealings. Disclosure is meant to safeguard Congress from members acting in their own interets, as the House Ethics Manual makes makes clear:

Public disclosure is intended to provide the information necessary to allow Members’ constituencies to judge their official conduct in light of possible financial conflicts with private holdings. Review of a Member’s financial conduct occurs in the context of the political process.

In other words, if Congressman So-and-so’s financial disclosure form shows he’s lining his pockets with taxpayer money, or renting to nonprofits for which he secures earmarks, or in business with recipients of federal contracts he’s helped secure, throw the bum out of office. But if the bums obfuscate, omit or otherwise obstruct disclosure, the political process will be unable on its own to keep Congress clean.

I am by no means a policy guy, but here’s a recommendation: Why not levy a 100 percent federal tax on any profit not properly disclosed by a member of Congress. That would certainly focus their attention.