Ethics Reform Still Has a Long Way to Go

Posted September 7, 2007 at 4:14pm

With the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act now awaiting President Bush’s signature, those in Congress who want to move on and claim that the work of changing business as usual in Washington, D.C., is done are both wrong and politically unwise. The voters’ hunger for reform in Washington is certainly not satiated, and the need to tackle other systemic reforms remains urgent.

Certainly, the way campaigns for Congress and the presidency are currently financed in itself invites criticism — large contributors and bundlers are able to gain access to the recipients of their largesse. And any K Street lobbyist worth his or her salt learns early on that playing the money game is essential to building a top-drawer lobbying practice in Washington. But it is admittedly doubtful that a sufficient number of Members will have the appetite to take on fundamental campaign finance reforms in these closing months of the first session of the 110th Congress.

What is both doable and urgently needed, however, is the completion of the work of the bipartisan Special Task Force on Ethics Enforcement appointed in January by Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). The task force was supposed to complete its recommendations by May 1, but progress ground to a standstill earlier this year as Congress focused on the lobbying and ethics bill. Rep. Mike Capuano (D-Mass.), the task force’s chairman, has indicated he does not feel beholden to meet any specific timetable.

But the looming question of Congressional ethics enforcement once again raises the issue of corruption and the appearance of corruption, a topic that, understandably, many Members just wish would go away. But it doesn’t go away because the threat of corruption looms for any political system, including a democracy, because it is an inherent aspect, however unattractive, of the human condition. Because we are a democracy — a system that depends on the consent and participation of the governed — corruption and the appearance of corruption are especially dangerous. A democratic system viewed by its citizen as rife with corruption or ineffective in fighting corruption results in a weaker nation.

Too often, the discussion in Washington about corruption and its appearance is framed in terms of votes bought and sold. That construct ignores the reality of the more common corruption of the political process. Rarely, if ever, does financial support in the form of wining and dining or of campaign contributions result in a policymaker doing a 180-degree shift on an issue. Certainly dastardly and outright illegal acts by some elected officials — see former GOP Reps. Duke Cunningham (Calif.) and Bob Ney (Ohio) — are proof that the Jack Abramoffs of the world can find the occasional politician whose greed has sent their moral compass awry. But dinners, trips and even large campaign contributions do not turn a pro-choice Member of Congress into an abortion opponent. Still, that is often the way reform critics and even Members try to characterize the reform argument. How many politicians have you heard in the past year utter some variation of “I can’t be bought for a steak dinner”?

Corruption can take the form, instead, of allowing well-funded interests, usually fronted by well-compensated lobbyists, to make it to the forefront of our political discourse. This ability to “make it on the radar screen” of policymakers is another type of corruption that feeds the pay-to-play system in Washington. These financial benefits don’t result in a “yes” or “no” vote on a particular issue. What they do is influence whether a matter even comes up for debate. Those with concerns that may have widespread support but don’t enjoy the same financial wherewithal generally find themselves yelling from outside of the Capitol instead of being invited to pull up the proverbial chair. Too often, consideration of an issue by Congress rests on the depth of the financial resources of the interests involved and their willingness to pony up.

As Congress resumes its work, the clear message that voters sent in November — that they were fed up with business as usual in Washington — should still be ringing in Members’ ears. The Honest Leadership and Open Government Act was a significant first step. But more remains to be done to respond to the voters’ message. Pelosi should direct Capuano to present final recommendations to her within the next 30 days so there is time for them to be considered, revised and acted upon before the end of the first session of the 110th Congress and be in effect for the second session.

As experience repeatedly has shown, without effective enforcement even the best rules and laws can be rendered ineffective or even meaningless. And despite claims that corruption and ethical lapses are a House problem, recent events show the Senate would do well to consider its own outside enforcement entity.

Meredith McGehee is the policy director of the Campaign Legal Center. She also heads up McGehee Strategies, a public interest consulting business.