To the highest bidder

January 27, 2004

LOUISIANA POLITICIANS sometimes joke that their constituents are less fussy about ethical proprieties than other Americans. But even by Louisiana standards, Rep. Billy Tauzin's negotiations for million-dollar jobs in the industries his committee helps regulate are scandalous.

As chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Mr. Tauzin helps shape legislation and write policy that affects the entire landscape of private enterprise in this country. Yet, without so much as a self-conscious blush, he let it be known last week that he has turned down more than $1 million a year to lobby for the movie industry after receiving an even more generous bid for his lobbying services from the pharmaceutical manufacturers.

What's more, he hasn't yet accepted the drug makers' offer, but is weighing his options, which still include a bid for re-election to a 14th term in Congress.

Talk about conflict of interest! There's no conflict with his interest, as an old Maryland pol used to say. But how can Louisianans or any other Americans have confidence that Mr. Tauzin's actions as committee chairman aren't affected by which industries come up with the best price?

The House has a weak set of ethics rules meant to discourage this sort of thing. Members are permitted to discreetly negotiate for future jobs once they have announced their intention to retire but are prohibited from allowing such talks to affect their official actions. After they leave Congress, former members are banned from directly lobbying their colleagues for one year. That "cooling-off" period doesn't prevent them, however, from directing lobbying campaigns, or from allowing their names to be used on the stationery.

By putting himself so openly on the auction block, Mr. Tauzin is undermining whatever faith Americans have left in the integrity of government. He should either resign his seat immediately or step down from the committee chairmanship and recuse himself from matters related to prospective or rejected employers. Meanwhile, Congress should tighten its rules on revolving-door employment to put some real distance -- a couple of years, at least -- between service as an elected representative and as a special pleader's hired gun.

The drug makers' pursuit of Mr. Tauzin could be read as a payoff for past favors as much as a quest for future aid. With Mr. Tauzin's help, the industry scored a spectacular victory last year. After a decade of debate, Congress added a prescription drug benefit to Medicare that not only ensures drug makers a new market for their products but specifically prohibits the government from negotiating discounts on drug prices. Another provision that would have allowed Americans to import cheaper drugs from Canada -- approved by both houses of Congress -- disappeared from the final bill drafted by Mr. Tauzin.

Hard to imagine the Republican congressman could be of any greater help to the pharmaceutical industry as a hired gun. But they must have figured they'd rather have him on their payroll than Hollywood's.

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