Voters want political reform on Capitol Hill

Posted: Wednesday, May 26, 2010

The following editorial first appeared in the Miami Herald:

Last week’s elections drove home the message that incumbents are in trouble, particularly in Congress. Its approval ratings are abysmally low — 22 percent, according to an average of six national polls on Lawmakers have only themselves to blame.

Indiana Republican Rep. Mark Souder, a “family values” champion, had to resign last week after confessing that he had an affair with a woman on his payroll. One of her jobs was to help her married boss make a video for constituents — touting the virtues of sexual abstinence.

This was only the latest in a series of recurring — and bipartisan — scandals. Voters in West Virginia recently gave a pink slip to 14-term Democratic Rep. Alan Mollohan, who was dogged by allegations that he unethically funneled millions of federal dollars to nonprofit groups run by friends and business associates.

The traditional remedy for discredited politicians is to throw the rascals out. Lately, that hasn’t worked out so well.

In 2006, Democratic lawmakers were swept into office in a wave of anti-incumbent fervor and a promise to clean up Capitol Hill. The House and Senate imposed new ethics rules, but it did little to alter the public perception that lawmakers are merely out to help themselves instead of helping the country.

The political culture that affects both parties is at the root of the problem. Voters are disgusted by the gridlock, self-interest and partisanship that pervades Capitol Hill.

Lawmakers won’t change public attitudes until they take steps to repair their respective houses.

Fix the filibuster. In 1975, the number of votes needed to break a Senate filibuster was lowered from 67 to 60. It’s time to either lower the number again or restrict its use. Nowadays, the threat of a filibuster is invoked so frequently, even on routine matters, that all too often nothing gets done in the Senate. It’s a recipe for gridlock.

End secret holds. This procedure also suffers from abuse. It allows a single senator, acting anonymously, to put a “hold” on any bill or nomination, putting it on ice. Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., recently put a hold on 70 of President Obama’s nominations to get the White House’s attention for his own agenda. Holds should be abolished altogether, or at least changed to drop the anonymity.

Make earmarks transparent. Earmarks are guarantees of federal funds for specified recipients. The purpose is to promote good local spending, but too often they just give Congress a black eye. Remember Alaska’s “bridge to nowhere?” The Earmark Transparency Act of 2010 would get rid of some of these abuses and vastly improve public disclosure by, among other things, banning earmarks to private, for-profit companies and institutions and holding members accountable for earmark requests. Congress should pass it.

Even if Congress were to act quickly, it would not end the insurrection at the ballot box. But it would send a message that lawmakers get it — they need to clean up their act — and that’s a message voters would love to hear.

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