How Congress can partly redeem itself

A one-time 'supercommittee' tasked to find a deficit-cutting compromise must resist the siren call of special-interest lobbies. The online gambling industry, for one, is already pouncing on this panel of 12 lawmakers.

When 9 out of 10 Americans disapprove of Congress – perhaps a record – political redemption for US lawmakers will not come easy. Yet at least 12 legislators now have an opportunity to set a high standard on Capitol Hill for, well, adultship.

The 12 are called the “super committee.” You may recall the debt-ceiling deal in July that punted the problem of reining in the galloping deficit to such a panel. It is made up of six Republicans and six Democrats (three of each party from the Senate and House). On Sept. 16, it officially begins work.

By Thanksgiving, this mini-Congress must try to find a majority among its ranks that can agree on how to trim $1.2 trillion from the deficit over 10 years. That’s no easy task with so many groups trying to keep their share of the federal budget.

If the panel succeeds, then Congress gets an up-or-down vote on the final pact. If not, then cuts of a similar magnitude will automatically be made starting in 2013.

Here’s the part that can help Congress regain some of its lost credibility. These “12 apostles” should announce that they will not deal with lobbyists of special interests or slip any favors for them into a legislative bill.

That may not be easy for super committee members who face a difficult reelection. The temptation will be strong to play favorites with lobbyists who may put money in their campaign coffers. Inside Washington, that is not called corruption. Outside, it is.

K Street lobbyists, especially the military and health industries, are ready to pounce on this small group of lawmakers. But perhaps it is smaller commercial interests that will seek favors while avoiding the spotlight.

Take, for example, the gambling industry. It is already trying to influence the panel in order to roll back a 2006 law banning online gambling. The Poker Players Alliance and other powerful gaming lobbies are waging a quiet campaign to have the panel slip in a provision that would make poker gambling legal on the Internet in the United States. (Once online poker gaming is legal, then other types would easily follow, the reasoning goes.)

The effort isn’t that quiet. Senate majority leader Harry Reid of Nevada promises the poker legislation “will get done.” He appointed three of the panel members.

Still, it is very likely that the panel’s final pact would draw political fire over raising taxes and cutting entitlements while smaller provisions like online poker gambling might be overlooked. And lawmakers who would otherwise vote against such a provision could easily vote for it if that measure is buried in a thick bill.

The poker lobby argues that online poker gambling will bring in more than $20 billion in tax revenue. No doubt it may approach that figure, but that income doesn’t even begin to cover the high costs to families and communities hurt by the effects of compulsive gambling – the personal debts, the broken homes, the violence. Online gambling is particularly addictive for young people.

So if Congress wants a boost to its reputation, then the super committee must resist the siren call of lobbyists such as the gaming industry. Just walk away from that table of cards.

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.