Rep. Jeff Flake has released a letter asking the Ethics Committee asking it to “specifically prohibit members from being able to certify having no financial interest in an earmark when they have received campaign contributions from the entity that would benefit from the earmark or those affiliated with it.”
Essentially, Flake is asking the committee to hold that, for earmarks, campaign contributions create a conflict of interest in the same way that, say, being part owner of a company would create a conflict of interest: The more flush the company is with federal contracts gotten through earmarks, the better off its (presumably greater number of) employees would be, and thus would have more donors with more money to contribute to the member’s campaign.
Putting on a policy hat for a moment, in some ways H.Res. 6, which required members to declare that neither they nor their spouses had a financial interest in the recipients to whom they were directing earmarked funds, opened the door to this. Congressional ethics rules (such as they are) deal with conflicts of interest not through prohibitions but through transparency. Thus, a member like Rep. Marion Berry of Arkansas can vote to increase the farm subsidies that he receives. It’s up to voters in his district to determine whether that’s a conflict of interest. Regulation of campaign contributions works the same way — and, as previously noted on Real Time, the Justice Department even assumes “they are almost always given and received with a generalized expectation of currying favor with the candidate benefitting therefrom.”
While members will most likely ignore it, Flake’s letter raises some very interesting issues in how Congress deals with ethics regulations: is it better to prohibit behaviors, or make them transparent and trust to voters to decide the ethical boundaries. His letter also reminds me of how much in the dark we still are with so much of Congress. After all, with earmarks, we are talking a minute sliver of the federal budget. Why not bring the same standards of disclosure and accountability to the rest of government spending?