Posted Monday, July 11, 2011, at 10:56 AM
Byron York juliennes a truly silly Susan Crabtree story from last week, in which a Rutgers professor's rage at the $350 wine bottles at Paul Ryan's table turned into a tale of confrontation, accusations of hypocrisy, and a source explaining to a reporter exactly what the mental effect of half a bottle of wine was. Matthew Yglesias finds the only interesting nugget in the story -- the research of one of the economists Ryan was meeting with -- but it's hardly news that the House Budget Chairman talks to sympatico conservative economists.
No, if there's any news here, it's the ethical issue of a member of Congress going along with the purchase of two $350 wines. Gifts of more than $100 require written waivers from the Ethics Committee.
A Member, officer, or employee may accept a gift (other than cash or cash equivalent) which the Member, officer, or employee reasonably and in good faith believes to have a value of less than $50, and a cumulative value from one source during a calendar year of less than $100. No gift with a value below $10 shall count toward the $100 annual limit. No formal recordkeeping is required by this paragraph, but a Member, officer, or employee shall make a good faith effort to comply with this paragraph.
This is written to prevent bribery, but I wonder if it's written stupidly. What public policy goal is served by requiring an economist to spend $99 on wine instead of $350 when he meets with Paul Ryan? Is the assumption is that a really nice dinner corrupts a member of Congress, but a merely pretty nice dinner doesn't? This can be safely filed in the bin of ethics rules that sound great but are mostly meaningless. That's the point of York's deadpan analysis -- how does Feinberg, or anyone else, pinpoint the exact point at which a gift or a drink given to a public official is exorbitant? This behavior is more controllable than, say, huge ad buys on a candidate's behalf by Super PACs, but just because you can regulate it doesn't mean some public interest is served by doing so. You're more likely to waste the members' time on penny ante scandal.
As Bob Mould once put it, I don't care what you're drinking today.