In his “Stories I’d like to see” column, journalist and entrepreneur Steven Brill spotlights topics that, in his opinion, have received insufficient media attention. This article was originally published on Reuters.com.
1. A scorecard on presidential aloofness:
Mark Knoller is the award-winning, long time CBS News White House correspondent famous for keeping count of everything that goes on in the White House, such as presidential press conferences, speeches, visits to various states, and even golf outings. Memo to Mark or anyone else who wants to put some meat on the bones of all the reports about how President Obama — whose charm offensive on Capitol Hill has dominated last two weeks’ headlines — has until now been so unusually disengaged with Congress: Can you do a comparison of how many times before his recent flurry of congressional encounters President Obama has met with members of the House and Senate? It could include a sub-category of one-on-one sessions, and compare Obama’s record, if possible, with the stats for presidents going as far back as you can. (Maybe Bob Caro can help you even get the LBJ numbers.)
A tally of one-on-one phone calls would be great, too.
2. Black Friday at the patent office?
Saturday morning at 12:01 marked a key deadline in the world of intellectual property. Under a change in patent law passed in September 2011 and scheduled to take effect on Saturday, March 16, 2013, rules governing new applications for seemingly the same inventions will shift from giving priority to whoever first invented a claimed invention to whoever first filed a patent application for it. It’s complicated, but this is a drastic change in patent law and means that anyone claiming a patent who is worried about competing claims would have a huge leg up by filing the application as soon as possible beginning on March 16.
Patent law has become a multi-billion dollar legal sweepstakes. So was the patent office flooded over the weekend? Was there a run up to March 16 equivalent for patent lawyers to the black Friday holiday rush for retailers?
3. Dealing with DC corruption:
On Friday, the Washington Post reported that a grand jury had been convened to hear federal prosecutors’ evidence against New Jersey Democratic Senator Bob Menendez, who is under a cloud following reports that he interceded on behalf of an ophthalmologist friend who gave him plane rides to and lodging at the doctor’s vacation home in the Dominican Republic and contributed $700,000 to a campaign fund for senate Democrats that Menendez ran. Menendez is charged with interceding with State Department officials to protect a security contract a company owned by the doctor had with a Dominican port agency, and with prodding senior Department of Health and Human Services officials to cut off an investigation regarding hundreds of thousands of dollars the doctor allegedly overbilled Medicare.
Here’s what’s more disturbing about the article than the senator’s possible misconduct: The Post accurately reported that, “Federal bribery laws require proof that a politician received something of value with the express purpose and understanding that it was to influence his or her official action.” As Stewart Brand, a lawyer who specializes in defending politicians on corruption charges explained to the Post, “You must show an absolutely direct nexus between the thing of value and the intent and the official act….Unless you have a wiretap or direct evidence of an official saying, ‘I’ll do this for that,’ it’s too hard to show that.”
In other words, favoritism toward a huge donor without proof of an explicit quid pro quo is not going to land a politician in prison. In terms of our high standards of proof beyond a reasonable doubt before we convict someone, that may make sense. But it’s a pretty poor standard when it comes to the people we entrust to run our country.
So here’s an idea for any reporter covering Congress. Grab a microphone and ask members on both sides of the aisle if they would support a rule — if not a law, just a simple ethics rule that could be promulgated by both the Senate and the House as a housekeeping measure — that would require any legislator to disclose any conflict of interest when performing any official act, such as voting on legislation, holding hearings, or interceding with a federal agency.
In other words, when Menendez or a staff member wrote to the State Department about his pal’s port deal, he would have been required to disclose to those officials, and also make public on his own website that the doctor was a good friend who had paid for his vacations and donated $700,000 to his campaign fund. More generally, whenever a member of the House or Senate cast a vote that helped a campaign donor, hurt a campaign donor’s competitors or aided the cause of a lobbyist- donor, he or she would be required to disclose it.
Would this result in a blizzard of disclosures accompanying almost every vote or other official act? Probably. But that kind of sunlight and accompanying embarrassment would be the point.
It would be fun to watch politicians squirming to figure out a way to avoid supporting a basic public policy principal — transparency — that seems as American as apple pie and that is free of the First Amendment issues that trump most efforts to regulate lobbying or campaign contributions. This, after all, is only about disclosure, not about prohibiting anything. The first interview, of course, should be with Menendez, who has repeatedly said he has nothing to hide. So doesn’t he think it would have been better to disclose his relationship with the good doctor when he took these unusually aggressive steps to intercede on the doctor’s behalf so that his constituents could then judge whether he was acting in the public interest?
4. Procurement Follies and the sequester:
A favorite line of liberals to explain their support of Rand Paul having used a 13-hour filibuster to question the president’s drone strike policies is that, as the saying goes, “a broken clock is right twice a day.”
Lately a lot of conservative blogs, like this one, have sounded the alarm that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has ordered more than 2,700 “mine-resistant armor protected vehicles” for domestic use. Could this be the second time the clock has been right?
My guess is that despite the right wing bloggers’ theory that these armored vehicles are for general “domestic use” on the “streets of the United States,” if they were ordered, the explanation from DHS will be that they are needed for border patrols. While not a tip-off to an Obama declaration of martial law or some such thing, that explanation would be a good lead-in to a sequester-oriented story about how so many of DHS’s procurement programs are emblematic of rampant waste and cronyism in Washington. For a refresher on one such multi-billion dollar fiasco - in this case, the failed deployment of high-tech sensors on the border rather than armored vehicles — see an item I wrote in this space last year.
That in turn suggests a broader, more fundamental story: Why hasn’t the Washington Post or Politico (assuming it aspires to go beyond DC process stories in a big, substantive way) scoured the various agencies and done its own thinking man’s sequester budget by finding obvious waste and expendable programs, the elimination of which would yield the $85 billion targeted in the sequester?