A landmark win for ethics in congress
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This editorial appeared in the Minneapolis Star Tribune:
When the Democrats took control of Congress last January, they promised thorough ethics reform to curb the kinds of abuses exemplified by the recent Jack Abramoff and William Jefferson scandals. A bill that overwhelmingly passed both houses of Congress last week should put the brakes on several unsavory practices.
The legislation was weakened somewhat in the sausage machine that is Congress. Nevertheless, its provisions will make members of Congress far more accountable to the public.
The goal, as Rep. Mike Castle, R-Del., put it well, was to make clear that "we are here to put the public interest above the special interests."
That required disallowing big, unseen gifts, including meals and travel, by lobbyists to members of Congress. The bill also bans lawmakers from attending lavish parties "honoring" them at their party's political conventions. And it prohibits senators from placing secret "holds" on legislation.
But while the bill includes these and other bans, its main power to avert abuse lies in the power of sunlight - i.e. disclosure.
Shine light on big money changing hands and you put into place an incentive for lawmakers to ensure that they look good in that light. This bill requires them to disclose any grouping of small contributions "bundled" by lobbyists that totals $15,000 or more in a six-month period.
Advance sunlight could well avert projects such as the much-written-about "Bridge to Nowhere" for Alaska, an earmark in a 2005 highway bill. The bridge, from Ketchikan to a tiny island, was hotly defended by Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens, who last week may well have created yet another impetus for reform: His house was raided by the FBI in a political corruption probe.
Bill isn't perfect, but neither is Congress
This editorial appeared in the Dallas Morning News:
When it comes to Washington lawmakers policing themselves, even crackdowns have loopholes.
The ethics bill, which passed overwhelmingly Thursday in the Senate, tries to follow the money and potential conflicts. And for the most part, it does a decent job. Among other things, lawmakers would be required to:
Disclose the names of lobbyists who gather more than $15,000 in political contributions for them in a six-month period.
Follow new restrictions on accepting gifts, discounted airfare, travel on corporate jets and other lobbyist-funded perks.
Stop hiding sponsorship of earmarked projects so budget-busting pork doesn't mysteriously drop into legislation.
End secret "holds" in the Senate, which permit a single lawmaker to block legislation anonymously.
Forfeit congressional pensions if a member is convicted of bribery, perjury or other crimes.
But as is so often the case in Congress, nothing is perfect. For example, smart lobbyists will stay $1 below the disclosure limit and could send almost $30,000 a year to a candidate or campaign committee without public knowledge. And we would have liked to see tougher measures against earmarking.
Even so, perfection mustn't become the enemy of good. This bill is the most far-reaching attempt at ethics reform since Watergate and raises the bar for ethical conduct. Despite its flaws, it deserves the president's signature.
Congress takes giant step toward reform
This editorial appeared in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram:
Achieving ethics reform in Congress is akin to subjecting 535 people to simultaneous water torture. The slow drip, drip, drip of change takes a long time to wear down politicians.
The "drip, drip, drip" that led to this week's adoption of an ethics reform package came in the form of growing public dissatisfaction with congressional behavior.
The reform bill passed with what can only be described as a tidal wave of support - 411-8 in the House and 83-14 in the Senate. Who can say for sure what kind of impact the search of Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens' home by the FBI in conjunction with a corruption investigation had on those final tallies?
The bill, which now goes to the president for his signature, bans gifts from lobbyists to lawmakers and staff; bars companies from hiring spouses or immediate family of lawmakers to directly lobby their elected kinfolk; denies federal pensions to congressional members who are convicted of corruption charges related to official duties; and requires that sponsors of earmarks be fully identified 48 hours before legislation is voted on, among other reforms.
Is it ideal legislation? No. Nary a piece of legislation that has come from any lawmaking body is. But it's a giant step toward providing transparency and accountability.