making local government more ethical

The Quid Pro Quo of Social Relationships

An excellent article on the front page of last Sunday's New York Times looks at a proposal by the federal Office of Governmental Ethics (OGE) to limit two exceptions to the prohibition on accepting gifts from lobbyists:  the "widely-attended gathering" (WAG) exception and the "social invitations" exception.

First, the proposal recognizes something the U.S. Supreme Court has been unable or unwilling to acknowledge:
    If one views the problem of lobbyist gifts as the mere potential for some quid pro quo, then probably an invitation to a gala ball will not directly influence an official to take action benefiting the giver. But it is increasingly recognized that the more realistic problem is not the brazen quid pro quo, but rather the cultivation of familiarity and access that a lobbyist may use in the future to obtain a more sympathetic hearing for clients.
Government ethics is not about bribes, with their quid pro quos, but about special relationships, including conduct that creates special relationships. Lobbyists speak about being heard, but no one is saying they should not be heard. The question is not about whether they should be heard, but rather the extent to which they should be permitted to have special relationships with government officials, either beforehand (as former aides, for example) or after (through invitations to social events, playing golf, dining together, etc., where they can go beyond the business relationships formed in meetings).

Second, what makes the Times article so valuable are the responses of trade associations, whose events are targeted by the proposal (as opposed to the educational and professional development activities of nonprofit professional associations, scientific organizations, and learned societies). The Motion Picture Association insists that its special screenings of films for government officials “‘are not purely social events akin to sporting events or theatrical and musical events, but rather serve as educational opportunities,’ allowing federal employees to learn about moviemaking techniques and ‘challenges facing the industry.’” In 3D, no less.

The USA Rice Federation (American rice is highly subsidized by the federal government) "called the proposal insulting. The administration, it said, appears to view lobbyists as predators and federal employees as ‘weak, unprincipled victims.’"

Instead of maturely commenting on the issue of special relationships and how they give rise to appearances of impropriety, this and other lobbyists create a cartoonish picture of shark lobbyists preying on weak, corrupt officials. After drawing this horrific picture of themselves, they call it "insulting" as if it came from elsewhere. This is the Jaws version of the Straw Man Fallacy.

Lobbyists insist they use these social and other events to train officials. But why should those doing business with government be permitted to make such gifts to officials? If officials are not receiving sufficient training, why don't they ask the government to provide more training itself? When officials go to professional conferences, the government pays for their attendance or sets up the conference itself. If lobbyists care so much about helping the government with training, why don't they give the government a gift to cover the cost of professional conferences and not use them as opportunities to develop personal relations with officials? In other words, why must supposedly caring gifts have the quid pro quo of personal relations?

It is this quid pro quo, of social relationships, that is the common problem, that and the appearance of impropriety that comes from interested parties with big money socializing with government officials at fancy hotels, when ordinary citizens have trouble getting any access at all to their officials.

Robert Wechsler
Director of Research, City Ethics