Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Congressional Travel, Ethics, and the Montana Senate Race

Good afternoon, politics fans. Today is primary day here in Montana, so if you haven't yet, get out and vote. Both parties have contested races, notably the guberatornial race for Republicans and the House race for the Democrats. My wife and I took our daughters this morning to introduce them to this wonderful American ritual, and tonight I'll be providing some commentary on KBZK.

The Washington Post recently had a nice piece on the Montana Senate race, emphasizing a theme I've been stressing all along: Senator Tester wants to make this race about him and his personal connection with Montana voters. Congressman Rehberg wants to emphasize Senator Tester's connection to the Democratic Party nationally and President Obama specifically. More broadly, the race is very much about who is the most like Montana--who is "one of us".

As a part of this meta-narrative, Tester's campaign recently launched a broadside against some of Congressman Rehberg's domestic and international travel in an attempt to paint Congressman Rehberg as rich, elitist, and out of touch. They posted a site, Rehberg Air, documenting 13 "luxurious" trips paid for with special interst dollars. Rehberg is rich, he's connected, and he's "not one of us" is the theme. You can check out the website and all of the voluminous background material for yourself.

Shortly after learning about the new microsite, my inbox had the Rehberg campaign's response. Some of these trips are paid for by an organization, the Montana World Trade Center, that promotes Montana products abroad and on whose board Rehberg sits (as do Senators Baucus and Tester). Montana's other Senator, Max Baucus, also participated in at least one of these trips with Congressman Rehberg and the Rehberg folks played this up repeatedly in their e-mail. Their response is pointed: Congressman Rehberg is doing his job for Montana by going on these trips. Here's a link to the Rehberg campaign response here.

What I'd like to do is to discuss a little bit about congressional travel and to provide some resources to Montana voters about the regulations concerning travel, both travel that is paid for by the federal government and travel that is paid for by outside organizations. It is important to note that both chambers have their own rules for travel, and generally speaking, the House has been at the forefront of Internet-based transparency efforts.

First, every member of Congress and U.S. Senator receives a set of funds to pay for their offices, their franked mail, and travel between Washington and their state/district. These funds are tightly regulated and controlled, and all expenses associated with them are reported to the Clerk of the House or the Secretary of the Senate. I've spent FAR too much time with these various reports for my research (see my article, "Making a Good Impression" with Craig Goodman or "Who Franks", also with Craig Goodman behind subscriber walls here and here. Statements of Disbursement Reports for the House are now available via the web. The Senate followed suit and you can access Senate disbursements here. These documents will tell you how each member apportions their office allowances between salaries, travel home (you can get dates of travel home and the days members visit their states), and mass mailing sent back to the state/district. If you want to access earlier years and Congresses, you can do so via GPO Access, microfilm, and the physical hard copies available at U.S. Government Depositories (such as the University of Montana, which is a full depository, or Montana State University, which is a limited depository).

Second, there is official travel that is paid for and approved by either the House or the Senate both foreign and domestic. This could be travel in conjunction with committee hearings in another state or travel related to fact-finding abroad. This travel must be approved by the House or the Senate and reported. You can find records related to official House-sponsored travel abroad here.Senate travel, unfortunately, does not seem to be compiled by the Senate Office of Public Records online--but reports of officially-sponsored Senate travel abroad is available via the Congressional Record. Just do a search of  "foreign travel" of the Senate portion of the Record and you'll get a bunch of records popping up.

Third, there is travel that is related to the official duties of a member but paid for by private entities. This travel follows strict reporting requirements, must be approved in advance, and must be reported. An overview of the travel regulations concerning privately-paid travel may be found here, here, and here.

To summarize all of this, members of Congress travel frequently to perform their duties, but travel paid for by private organizations has been subject to abuse by some members--and was a key component of the Abramoff scandal which erupted in 2005 and 2006 (In fact, I'm reading Heist right now, a book about Abramoff and his sundry misdeeds). Congress has since tightened up its disclosure rules and largely restricted the ability of lobbyists to pay for the travel of members. It is also difficult, despite efforts on the behalf of transparency, to fully account for all the officially-related travel of members. According to a relatively recent CRS report available here, it is nearly impossible to know completely every trip a member takes in connection with their congressional duties and responsibilities. Perhaps a more streamlined process, similar to campaign finance reporting required of candidates, and one central depository would alleviate transparency concerns and would make it easier for members of the general public to know where and how members of Congress spend their time.

Friday, June 1, 2012

A Constitutional Amendment

In one of the strangest comments ever heard in a presidential campaign Mitt Romney said he would like to change the constitution to:
(H)ave a provision in the Constitution that in addition to the age of the president and the citizenship of the president and the birthplace of the president being set by the Constitution, I’d like it also to say that the president has to spend at least three years working in business before he could become president of the United States.‘”
Of course the blogosphere erupted with commentary on the apparent silliness of the idea that would have disqualified virtually every top ranked president, and rightly so. Romney, like so many politicians, seems willing to say anything that will get him to the magical 50.1%. The most common frame for such a statement is that government should be run like a business and so by extension, businessmen make good public servants. Let’s examine this wrong headed proposition.
Economic theory tells us that rational decisions, the assumptive behavior of profit maximizing individuals like businessmen, are based on three signals that Romney and others who advocate a business approach to government respond to:
1. Individuals practice rational maximizing behavior – they behave in such a way as to do as well as possible for themselves. This suggests they run a business to maximize return on investment.
The reality is that we often act in ways that do not maximize our own private utility and a world in which operated that way would be dismal indeed. A more accurate view of human behavior was described by Robert Trivers in 1971 where he outlined how seemingly non self interested behavior can have long run benefits for the individual performing an altruistic act and by extension, benefit the community. This flies against the face of short-term economic maximizing behavior as advocated by business proponents. The world is not comprised of selfish self-centered individuals looking out for “number one” and in fact, works better when that is not the case. One might wonder where the signals for altruistic behavior would come from if not for the existence of a public regarding class.  The business model frame makes no provision for community beyond a collection of consumers vying for the most product at the least cost. If you think a national health care system is good for the community, the business frame offers nothing in the way of achieving it although it may have something to say about doing so efficiently.
2. Consumer demand – we are willing and able to state what we like and don’t like. As such, entrepreneurs respond with various widgets at various prices so that varying segments of the consuming public can express preferences.
This begs the question of quantifying public demand in the absence of clear market signals. In others words, how do political entrepreneurs know consumer preferences? Answer – they don’t. The current system is so badly broken one could be forgiven for thinking voter preferences reflect the values of Koch brothers or the OWS movement. The hallmark of political leadership is not bending to the will of the vociferous minority. It is having a vision that sometimes goes against the grain and being willing to adopt an unpopular stand. Romney shows no indication of being able to do this, Obama only rarely. In any case, the business model is a poor construct for transformational leadership that expands civil rights, protects the environment, and extends consumer protection.
3. All decisions must account for tradeoffs – in a world of limited resources, we are faced with internalizing the opportunity costs of our choices. Faced with normal budget constraints, we prioritize our purchases in such as way as to satisfy number one above.
Of course, this is an overly simplistic description of the world of business and the public sector. In fact, as consumers, we are often irrational (just think about your last impulsive purchase) and as decision makers, we are often just plain wrong.  We frequently depend on heuristics that rely on intuition or faulty logic. Psychologist Daniel Kahneman, in his new book “Thinking Fast and Slow”, discusses his research on how we think in two ways: consciously (slow) and subconsciously (fast). His conclusions are startling – we are often and unconsciously wrong for all sorts of reasons. These findings are just as true for businessmen as anyone else. Two traits account for this. First, we are, for the most part, lazy in our intuitive thinking. We rely on past experiences to form quick opinions with very little in the way of reflection or critical thinking. Second, we tend to be very risk adverse to counterintuitive findings. Hard decisions are not part of our genetic makeup. Again, those from the world of business enjoy no comparative advantage over nonbusiness types with respect to our ability to weigh risk, costs, or benefits. In fact, they likely have a smaller frame of reference than others given their cultural proclivities toward short term profit. 
The take home message is that the assertion that government should be run like a business is nonsensical. The cues, laws, and considerations of “clientele” suggests there is little overlap at least in the big picture. That said there are clearly lessons from business practices that can apply in the public sector (reform institutional incentives) just as there are public sector practices that are applicable to the world of private business (more transparency of business practices – especially overseas).
The emphasis in this election seems to be on the “job creators” as the solution to our economic doldrums. As we are so often reminded, small business create 65% of jobs in this country. Unfortunately, half will fail within five years. Wouldn’t you think we could find a better model to emulate?