Monday, January 6, 2014

Puncturing The Bubble

Something strange and revealing happens at the tail end of Pat Callaghan's two-part, 18-minute Friday interview of Sen. Susan Collins. At 12:01 the following exchange unfolds:

CALLAGHAN: Some people get concerned about who's influencing Congress. Your husband is, runs a lobbying firm or is a partner in it. Is that...?

SENATOR COLLINS: No.

CALLAGHAN: Oh okay.

SENATOR COLLINS: It's, he is the COO [Chief Operating Officer] of a small consulting firm. He does no lobbying--

CALLAGHAN: Okay.

SENATOR COLLINS:--whatsoever.

CALLAGHAN: So he's not twisting your arm.

SENATOR COLLINS: Does no lobbying whatsoever.

CALLAGHAN: No conflict of interest here?

SENATOR COLLINS: None. Zero.

It all seems pretty straightforward: Collins, disabusing her interlocutor of a mistaken impression, corrects the record and Callaghan hustles the conversation onto another topic.

Except that Collins's denial that her husband Tom Daffron runs a lobbying firm is utterly--and blatantly--false.

Is Collins really in the dark about the fact that her spouse, who she's known since she first came to Washington DC in the 1970s, is a former registered lobbyist? That his K Street firm Jefferson Consulting Group has done plenty of lobbying over the years? That it lists "lobbying" as one of three practice areas on its corporate website? And that Daffron's COO responsibilities include "oversee[ing] Jefferson's administrative and financial functions as well as the day-to-day operations of the firm"?

In short, is she really unaware that, given the firm's profile and Daffron's role, Callaghan's formulation is perfectly accurate?

It seems implausible. And so the denial of easily verifiable facts comes across as reckless and even bizarre: How does a savvy, seasoned politician manage to blurt out such a transparently dishonest reply to such a basic question?

There's no simple answer. But the context of Collins's decades-long Washington journey from fresh face to veteran pol, taken together with the Maine media's extreme skittishness about scrutinizing the state's senior senator in general or the Collins-Daffron relationship in particular, probably sheds some light.

For starters, it's no accident that Collins's denial recalls in its terseness and peevishness former President George W. Bush's performance at 2004's first presidential debate or, more recently, Director of National intelligence James Clapper's testimony before Congress: Collins, after spending the better part of the last 40 years inside the bubble of power worship and status deference that is the Washington DC beltway, has clearly grown unaccustomed to being challenged directly on sensitive subjects.

It's within that same bubble that she's transitioned from squeaky clean freshman lawmaker--refusing to attend a 1997 fundraiser because donors were promised a chat with her--to ethically flexible beltway fixture, so inured to the amoral DC culture that she let corporate lobbyists throw her a birthday-bash-slash-fundraiser at a corporate-owned townhouse that stands as a monument, almost literally, to the abuse of campaign finance rules.

And it's inside the same corrosive power-and-privilege-fueled feedback loop that she "evolved" from pledging to serve no more than two terms to campaigning, unapologetically, for a fourth.

Put simply, when you're used to making up your own rules--and then revising them when they no longer serve your ends--it makes sense that you might bristle at a query about ethics and integrity from a lowly news anchor.

You might even feel justified blowing off his insolent question, facts be damned.

Of course, that Collins has become acclimated to the imperial treatment--and being insulated from anything that falls short of it--is no defense for dishonesty. Nor is the history of Maine press deference, which is to say silence, on the subject of her husband's career any excuse: You don't get to mislead viewers and deceive your constituents just because you've been asked a question you didn't see coming and would prefer not to answer.

If anything, Collins's uneasiness about the question underscores its importance, and the many legitimate concerns that stand behind it. Just for openers:

--Do any of Daffron's corporate clients have business before Congress in the coming term?

--How does Collins handle the potential confluence with and/or conflict between the oversight responsibility of the Intelligence Committee on which she sits and Daffron's firm's role as a consultant to the Department of Defense, the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI? Or between her role as Ranking Member of the Subcommittee on Transportation, Housing, and Urban Development and his firm's consulting work for the Department of Housing and Urban Development?

--What about Jefferson's work for CGI Federal, the company behind the botched Healthcare.gov rollout? Or Halliburton? Or Apple?

These are obvious, public interest-minded questions that constituents deserve a response to.

And while the curt and sweeping nature of Collins's brush-off strongly suggests that she has no intention of answering them, it hints as something else as well: That she hasn't actually thought through the implications of being married to someone who heads a firm that makes money from the government; from companies that want to do business with the government; and from still other companies that want to sway the government in one direction or another.

That's a problem because, contrary to Collins's flat denial, a close personal relationship between a sitting senator and the head of a firm in the "government relations" racket is a significant and inherent conflict.

That's not to say that the conflict can't be managed and mitigated. But you can't manage a conflict that you're trying to pretend doesn't exist.

If her performance with Callaghan is any guide, Collins simply isn't ready to face up that reality. It will be interesting to see in the coming weeks and months whether that's a tenable position.

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