WASHINGTON - If you are going to do something, the old saying goes, do it right.
Or more specifically, do it completely and correctly.
In effect, that's what two House chairmen with control over municipal securities legislation and regulation wisely told the Securities and Exchange Commission last week.
Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, and Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., chairman of the panel's subcommittee on telecommunications and finance, fired off a letter asking the SEC to broaden its inquiry into political contributions made to state and local officials in connection with municipal bond offerings.
In addition to its current effort to gather information on contributions made by municipal underwriting firms and their employees, the SEC was asked to gather information on contributions made by "bond counsel, consultants and other experts who figure in these financing deals."
That's an excellent move.
Before deciding if new legislation is needed to regulate the municipal market, Congress needs to develop an accurate and complete picture of the actual influence, if any, of political contributions in the selection of underwriting teams.
And that picture should include every one of the many players in a typical bond deal who might be using political contributions to try to win an issuer's bond business.
Certainly, underwriters and bond counsel are the major players in any municipal deal, but there are others that must be included if the SEC's probe is to be comprehensive.
Dingell and Markey did not spell out exactly who they meant by "consultants and other experts," but the list should include financial advisers, tax counsel and other legal advisers, bond insurers, credit enhancers, rating agencies, and even bond trustees.
If the probe is going to capture the essence of the relationship between political contributions and the awarding of bond business, the SEC is also going to have to take two other difficult, but necessary steps.
First, the agency must make sure that it tracks any and all contributions made through the maze of vehicles that can be used to funnel money to state and local candidates. These range from contributions made by federal and state political action committees and partnerships to those made by individual employees of market participants and their families.
Most importantly, the SEC must then take the lists of political gifts and try to link them to any bond deals that may subsequently have been awarded to the contributors.
If a solid nexus is established between the contributions and the awarding of bond business, then the SEC and Congress will have the ammunition they need to put tough new restrictions on the market.