One of the most significant advances in the 110th Congress was the passage earlier this year of a lobbying and ethics bill. Reform groups were ready for the usual — a modest, diluted show package, making no meaningful changes — but were pleasantly surprised that the bill was serious and had real teeth. Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) took seriously their pledge to make real change to counter the culture of corruption, and got help from members of both parties.
That was the good news. The bad news is that the change was incomplete. A key piece was missing: action to make a nonexistent ethics process in Congress something meaningful. The decline and fall of the ethics process was and is a core part of the problem — if Members and staff know there is no chance that any miscreancy or ethical slippage will be held accountable, there will be more miscreancy and more ethical slippage.
Congress has long struggled with the deeper problem of a body charged by the Constitution to police itself, with the inherent difficulties both of asking people to oversee and perhaps punish their friends and colleagues, and of treating Members fairly in an environment filled with tough partisans and ambitious people eying rivals ahead of them on the ladder to power. The need to find a better balance has been evident to many of us for a long time — in fact, the first time I addressed in Roll Call the need for some independent ethics element, consisting of former Members and staff, was more than 15 years ago, in January 1992.
Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and several of his Senate colleagues saw that need clearly when ethics and lobbying reform first came up, but their plan to create an independent investigative arm for the Senate Ethics Committee was roundly rejected by the Senate. The House promised to address it separately, through a task force chaired by Rep. Mike Capuano (D-Mass.) created by Pelosi in late January of this year.
The appointment of Capuano was not received with glee by most reformers. He is a blunt, plain-spoken pol who revels in the gritty reality of the legislative process and views reform generally as far removed from the grit and the reality. Reformers’ skepticism was re-enforced when the task force took its time coming up with a plan and got a lot of flak along the way for delays. But the wait was neither a plot to wait out any zeal for change nor a way to craft another sham proposal.
As much as anything, the long time it took to construct a plan was due to the resistance of many, if not most, House Members to any change that might cause them to lose control of their lives and careers, and a fear of creating another nightmare like the Independent Counsel statute, with rogue prosecutors running amok.