It's Now or Never for Ethics Reform

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Saturday, December 16, 2006
The voters offered Congress an unparalleled opportunity on Election Day. Let us hope our legislators have the wisdom to seize it. 

I'm talking, of course, about ethics reform. The upcoming session of Congress may be our best chance in a generation to enact meaningful reforms governing how Congress runs and polices itself. 

Acting quickly, early in 2007, is crucial not only for addressing the problems that arose on Capitol Hill over the past several years, but also for restoring public confidence in a vital, but badly stained, American institution. Voters were clearly and unequivocally in the mood for reform in November and impatient with excuses for not moving ahead with it, and there is no doubt in my mind they will be watching carefully to see what happens in January. 

The signals coming from the incoming House Speaker, Nancy Pelosi, have been quite positive. She has said that the 110th Congress will be "the most honest, most open, and most ethical Congress in history," and the new House majority is already moving to put together a package of reforms. Republican leaders also seem supportive of efforts to prevent abuses of office. 

So this is a hopeful moment — but it is only that. The hard work will come when Congress convenes and focuses on the details of changing fine words into deeds. 

Some of what Congress needs to do is obvious. Banning all gifts, meals, and travel paid for by lobbyists is a key first step. So, too, are: requiring complete and readily accessible disclosure of lobbyist contacts with members of Congress; finding ways to restrict the access to sitting members by former members of Congress who have become lobbyists; and tightening up on ways members enrich themselves while in office. 

Simply put, the freewheeling atmosphere that once prevailed on Capitol Hill — at least until the Jack Abramoff scandal dampened the fun — needs to become a thing of the past. 

Somewhat less obvious, but no less important, Congress should also own up to its own bad habits. The new majority has already indicated that so-called "earmarks" are off the table for the remainder of the fiscal year, but it also needs to act for the long term by requiring disclosure of who is responsible for each earmark that lards future budgets. 

This is a slippery issue, because there are some earmarks — a bridge, a new post office, a badly needed highway interchange — that members are more than happy to be associated with back home. But there are other earmarks — most notably, appropriations aimed at funneling federal money to this contractor or that contributor — that their sponsors would prefer to remain cloaked. So talk of requiring full disclosure of "district-oriented earmarks" misses the point; it's those darker payments to interests that may not be located in a member's district that need the full light of day and thorough vetting. 

Finally, I am heartened to see that the notion of an independent Office of Public Integrity, separate from the congressional ethics committees, is at last getting serious consideration by House members and senators on both sides of the aisle. 

This is a key reform. The slap-on-the-wrist approach taken by the House ethics committee toward members who knew early on about former Rep. Mark Foley's behavior toward House pages is a classic illustration of how hard it is for Congress to enforce its own ethics code. Even though an independent office could at best make recommendations for enforcement to the ethics committees, its words would carry great weight and ensure that, at a minimum, the American public would have a trustworthy yardstick by which to judge the actions — or inaction — of its representatives. 

The truth is, it takes two independent forces acting at once to keep congressional ethics on the front burner, both legislatively and in legislators' minds. 

One is pressure from the voters, and with 42 percent having reported in exit polls Nov. 7 that corruption and scandals in government were extremely important in how they voted last month, public pressure is a key influence at the moment. 

The other is a clear message from the bipartisan leadership of the House and Senate that this is important, and that they expect and will enforce the highest standards of conduct in Congress. 

No doubt there will be attempts in coming weeks to water down whatever reform legislation is proposed, just as the temptation will be strong, once the spotlight has moved on, to let standards slip. But as long as the public and the leadership remain determined to see that members of Congress act to reflect credit on the institution and to live up to what the American people expect and deserve, we have a good chance of regaining an institution that makes us proud and maintains our trust. 

(Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.)