Small step for ethics reform

Published May 27, 2007

House Democrats in Congress kept their promise on ethics reform, though it took some last-minute arm-twisting of those who didn't want to give up their easy access to "bundled" contributions quietly funneled through lobbyists. In the end, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., prevailed and a bill that would expose bundling to public scrutiny easily passed. That and other House reforms will have to be reconciled with the Senate bill, so advocates of cleaner government shouldn't rejoice too soon.

Had Pelosi failed to deliver on bundling, the major piece of reform, Democrats would have been accused of hypocrisy or worse. Currently, a lobbyist can collect dozens of individual political contributions and give them anonymously to a candidate in a single transaction that can be worth tens (even hundreds) of thousands of dollars. The public sees the individual contributions but never knows that the lobbyist has ingratiated himself to the politician.

The House bill would still allow bundling but require lobbyists to report their participation and file quarterly reports. The bill would increase maximum fines for violations of the rules to $100,000 and add a prison sentence of up to five years, applicable to lobbyists as well as politicians. It remains to be seen if the new rule would reduce the amount of money being bundled, because anyone who is not a registered lobbyist could still aggregate and distribute campaign money without being identified.

On other ethics matters, House Democrats unfortunately took a pass. The Senate would double the length of time (from one year to two) a former member of Congress would have to wait before becoming a lobbyist. The House stuck with one year, apparently not wanting to slow that unseemly trip through the revolving door from lawmaker to influential lobbyist.

Even though both chambers of Congress would formalize the practice of identifying earmarks -- politically self-serving appropriations made by individual members -- even Democrats have found ways to avoid their own rule. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., used a practice dubbed "phonemarks." Instead of putting his name on an earmark in the Energy Department budget, he waited until a general appropriation was made and then tried to influence the department into spending the money on his pet project, the Washington Post reported.

Rep. David Obey, D-Wis., chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, has another tactic in mind. He told colleagues he would add earmarks back into appropriations during closed-door conference sessions. "I don't give a damn if people criticize me or not," said a defiant Obey.

Republicans are no better. Although they made a show of supporting current ethics reforms, such legislation was necessary because of the abuses under their leadership.

Proposals to expose bundling to the light of day, limit gifts from lobbyists and identify budget earmarks are all positive steps in the effort to clean up Congress. Yet the work is far from done. As Americans have discovered time and again, where there is a will to subvert open and honest government, politicians and lobbyists will find a way.