Despite some bad apples, the United States is not a corrupt country. Among more than 180 other nations, the U.S. ranks in the top 15 percent of government cleanliness, according to the 2011 Corruption Perception survey.
This is just one major reason why America has succeeded. Our culture and national morality discourage corruption, and our First Amendment encourages press investigation of any hint of corruption or influence buying.
But some of our federal efforts to discourage corruption, especially those instituted more for theatrics, are producing results that are counterproductive, absurd or both. To put it plainly – we have become stupid.
Here are just a few recent examples.
A Congressman recently told me that he was advised by ethics counsel that his staff could not legally email his wife his schedule because that would involve using government property to provide a benefit to a private person. This is asinine, and demands a type of priestly purity that merely builds resentment. Certainly, government officials can and should do what business does: recognize that computers have miniscule marginal costs and a certain amount of personal use can and should be allowed. That conversation happened over lunch, for which, by law, we had to split the bill. Yet, had I handed the Congressman a $5,000 personal check for a contribution to his election campaign, one of us could have paid for the other’s lunch.
Federal limits on fundraising have led to a system that encourages the precise type of influence buying the laws seek to prevent. Businesses may not give corporate money to candidates, and they are limited in the amounts that their employees can give through a Political Action Committee (PAC). The result is that politicians, especially Republicans, must spend a huge amount of time doing fundraising from many businesses. The election laws give Democrats a break because much of their fundraising is from unions that simply compel their members to pay dues, a portion of which goes toward political donations.
Washington has also initiated bizarre rules limiting politicians’ ability to participate in non-fundraising events outside Washington. At the International CES, held each January in Las Vegas, more than 150,000 attendees representing media, business executives, investors, buyers, sellers and innovators mingle and collaborate with government leaders from around the world. Yet because federal regulations limit the amount of time Members of Congress may attend the event, they typically stay only one night, which denies them the opportunity to actually help us host the more than 30,000 government and business visitors from abroad.
But even worse are the restrictions put on government employee participation in trade shows. President Obama issued an executive order barring political appointee participation in key aspects of events like ours, including dinners.
So we have the absurd case of members from the Federal Communications Commission trying to meet their counterparts from Canada, Europe and Asia by standing outside the perimeter of our cocktail party so they do not violate the president’s order. Silly but true.
And the White House has now proposed extending this ridiculousness to all government employees from all association events.
President Obama rails against lobbyists, except of course union lobbyists. True to his word, I have not been in the White House since the waning days of President Bush. Yet, a recent report notes that those with relatives in the White House formed a new trade association so business members could access Obama officials. How is that advancing ethical government?
These examples cry out for some common sense in ethics laws.
On the state level, Virginia is a great example of a government that has found the right balance. It tops several surveys as a business-friendly environment, has low unemployment and has almost no recent cases of corruption.
It has a one-term-limited governor, allows corporate contributions and neither party dominates the legislature or governorship. Virginia’s focus is on disclosure, not insipid and counterproductive ethics laws.
We need changes, but the Obama administration’s ethics efforts have been little more than totally absurd PR stunts.
Meanwhile, other countries continue to foster a healthy relationship between government and business, one where each side learns from the other.
We should follow this example. Otherwise, we’re cutting off our nose to spite our face, while – to mix the metaphor -- the rest of the world eats our lunch.
Gary Shapiro is president and CEO of the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA), the U.S. trade association representing more than 2,000 consumer electronics companies, and author of the New York Times bestselling book, “The Comeback: How Innovation Will Restore the American Dream.”