My first reaction upon reading this story about lobbyist spending on food and drink and entertainment for elected officials and their staff is the old chestnut about how government should be run like a business. People who say that, especially people who run for office on that kind of platform, are often ignorant about the ways in which the two are supposed to be different, but this is one area where the business model would be useful to emulate. That's because businesses often have fairly strict rules about conflicts of interest and accepting gifts from other parties with whom you are doing or contemplating doing business, and those rules get enforced. A more businesslike approach here would not be a bad idea, to my mind.
Another way to approach this - all this assumes you think there's something wrong with what was reported in the story; if you see no problems, then none of this matters - is to treat this kind of expense like campaign funds. Impose stricter rules on reporting them, and consider reasonable ways to put limits on these expenditures. Of course, as with campaign finances, this all breaks down if there isn't an enforcement mechanism that has some teeth to it. But the model is a perfectly viable one, and I'm hard-pressed to think of any valid argument against greater transparency in this arena. Even if we did nothing else, shining some more light on this kind of spending would be a boon.
Finally, again as with campaign finances, I think it's important to remember that whatever protestations the parties in question may make about the quid pro quo nature of these transactions, the simple fact is that rational, profit-maximizing enterprises would not spend this kind of money if they didn't expect to get some kind of return on that money. As such, if one wanted to discourage or diminish this sort of thing, one could examine ways to increase its cost. Levying a tax on this kind of spending by lobbyists, for example, might have the desired effect, at least if the tax were steep enough. You could try the same approach for political contributions made by corporations, if one wanted to make the case in the inevitable lawsuit that corporations should not enjoy the same rights to make these contributions as individuals do. Regardless, such a tax if successfully imposed could then be used to fund the better enforcement mechanism I referred to earlier. It's a win-win situation.
Of course, none of this will ever happen. Certainly, neither the politicians nor the lobbyists have any reason to want to change things, and frankly the voters by and large don't pay it any attention, except for about five minutes after they read a story like this. Maybe some day the public will demand a change, but until then, expect very little to happen unless a big scandal occurs. In the meantime, you can take a look at how things are now via this handy database the Chron set up.Posted by Charles Kuffner on January 26, 2009 to Show Business for Ugly People