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Wisconsin Republican Petri Should Be Investigated for Conflict of Interest

Wisconsin Republican Rep. Tom Petri went to bat in Congress for a Pentagon contractor that he reportedly owns hundreds of thousands of dollars of stock in.

Wisconsin Republican Tom Petri went to bat in Congress for a Pentagon contractor that he reportedly owns hundreds of thousands of dollars of stock in, causing the value of his investment to rise as much as $200,000. Critics are calling for a probe into the potential conflict of interest.

It seems like it was only just the other day – actually, it was September – that administration officials referred to the right-wing foreign policy lobby group AIPAC as “the 800-pound gorilla in the room” that would ensure Congressional support for the bombing of Syria. Yet now, the Forward reports, AIPAC is in “disarray” as it approaches its once-heralded March policy conference, unsure on what its agenda is after President Obama’s supporters cleaned AIPAC’s clock on its demand for new Iran sanctions that would have blown up his diplomacy with Iran.

If we could beat AIPAC, could we also beat the military-industrial-Congressional complex? The MIC is AIPAC squared. If AIPAC was an “800-pound gorilla,” the MIC is 320 tons.

Here’s how powerful the MIC is. The Pentagon was told to try to save some money. So some people in the Pentagon said, well, maybe we don’t really need 11 aircraft carriers. Maybe we could squeak by with 10. If we retire one, that would save billions of dollars, starting immediately. Scale comparison: restoring the cut to military pensions from the Ryan-Murray budget deal – which just sailed through Congress against the complaints of some budget-cutters – is expected to cost $6 billion over ten years. Retiring the USS George Washington would save $3 billion in just the next fiscal year, because that money would have to be put in the 2015 budget to refurbish the USS George Washington. So, rough scale comparison: savings next year from retiring the USS George Washington would be five times as large as the foregone savings from the military pension cut.

How do you think members of Congress responded to the Pentagon’s idea of retiring an aircraft carrier? Were they like, “Way to go, Pentagon! Way to steward the taxpayers’ money!” No way! They were like, “Oh, my God! If we don’t have 11 aircraft carriers, we’ll have less “forward presence” around the world! (Translation: “There might be less campaign cash for us from Pentagon contractors!”) And that would be totally unacceptable!

Here’s how powerful the MIC is, compared with AIPAC. Occasionally, Democrats will stand up to AIPAC, as we just saw. It’s rare, but it does happen. Here’s how often Democrats stand up to the MIC: never. When Republicans were looking for an offset for restoring the military pension cut, they said, let’s cut domestic spending more. When Democrats want to protect food stamps, or Head Start, or women and infants’ nutrition, and Republicans say, fine, but you have to pay for it by cutting elsewhere, how many Democrats say, OK, fine, let’s retire an aircraft carrier, like the Pentagon suggested? Crickets. Judging from their public actions, Democrats in Congress love the 11th aircraft carrier more than they love food stamps, Head Start or WIC.

How could we begin to turn this around?

What if we picked a target so egregious that even the cowardly Washington Democrats wouldn’t be able to stay silent?

Last week, Gannet reported that Wisconsin Republican Tom Petri had successfully gone to bat in Congress and with Pentagon officials for a Pentagon contractor in which Petri owned hundreds of thousands of dollars of stock, causing the value of Petri’s investment in the company to rise, possibly as much as $200,000.

House ethics rules prohibit members of Congress from using their office for personal gain.

Public Citizen has called for the Office of Congressional Ethics to investigate, calling the situation a “clear conflict of interest.” This is “not just benefiting a major campaign contributor, this is going into his own pocket,” said Craig Holman, senior legislative director for Public Citizen.

The very existence of the Office of Congressional Ethics is a key ethics reform instituted by Nancy Pelosi when she was speaker. Prior to that, reform groups slammed the House Ethics Committee as a bipartisan protection racket where complaints go to quietly die. But the independent OCE can start an investigation on its own. It has no power to sanction; the Ethics Committee still controls the final disposition of every case. But the existence of the OCE puts public pressure on the Ethics Committee: If the OCE forwards a case to the Ethics Committee, the Ethics Committee has to publicly report what action it took on the case and explain why.

The OCE has a good reputation for being responsive to public concern. You can urge the OCE to take action – and copy the House Ethics Committee and Rep. Petri on your complaint – here.

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