Rough Week on Ethics Front Could Lead to Reforms

Posted March 9, 2010 at 3:08pm

Last week was rocky on the ethics front for House Democrats, starting with the sturm und drang over Rep. Charlie Rangel (N.Y.), and it did not get much better at the start of this week. Rep. Eric Massa (N.Y.) did not take the admonition “No Massa” very seriously, going on media outlets to blast his party’s leaders, to blast Rahm Emanuel as the “son of the devil’s spawn” — apparently making him the grandson of the devil — and to offer his defense of his inappropriate comments.

[IMGCAP(1)]On the radio, he described his exchanges with his own staff at a wedding party (where, he said, his staff were drunk to near-incoherence). After one staffer apparently suggested to the boss that he should be “fracking” a bridesmaid Massa had danced with, the Congressman cleared things up by tousling the hair of a male staffer and said he should be “fracking” him. Glad he cleared that up — I had mistakenly thought Massa might have done something that reflected badly on the conduct of an elected Member of Congress.

One good thing has come out of this mess: the Democrats’ choice of Rep. Sander Levin (Mich.) to chair the Ways and Means Committee. Take into account my bias as a friend, but Sandy Levin is as decent, thoughtful and honorable a Member of Congress as we have, and he is driven by all the right reasons to be in public service and serve his country.

I expect Ways and Means, as important as any committee in Congress, to move quickly out of its largely moribund status over the past year and become active and engaged in all the key policy areas within its purview, including jobs, health, taxes, welfare, trade and the global economy. I expect Levin to make a real effort to bring Republicans into the dialogue. And I hope if and when he does so that they respond with real efforts to engage, and without a reflexive opposition to all the bills considered in the committee (or, as has happened too much in the House, to vote en bloc against bills on the floor after working in a bipartisan fashion on bills in the committee).

By fighting hard and long to create an independent Office of Congressional Ethics, against the ardent opposition of many of her own Democrats and nearly all of the House Republicans, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) took a big and difficult step to create a meaningful ethics investigative process in the House. Now it is clear that the ethics process itself needs help from her and her colleagues, including Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and the main progenitor of OCE, Rep. Mike Capuano (D-Mass.). They need both to make sure that the OCE survives and thrives as an entity with credibility outside the institution as well as inside, and to make sure the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct lives up to the “standards” in its name and focuses on setting and enforcing those standards.

On trips outside the U.S. paid for by private entities, we need much clearer guidelines about do’s and don’ts, along with real penalties for those who step over the line — which includes failure to disclose the real costs of trips and failure to provide full and accurate information before a trip in order to gain “pre-clearance” from the ethics panel.

Pelosi is apparently considering taking other bold steps, including, as Monday’s Roll Call reported, a ban on earmarks. I don’t have any problem with a one-year ban on earmarks. For many reasons, I would have a problem with a permanent ban on them. First, earmarks are not unbridled evil. Someone has to make allocation decisions and having them made by Washington-based bureaucrats has its problems and limits. Getting some input from local officials and local residents about their needs and priorities is not a bad thing, if done the right way.

Second, a ban on earmarks could result in more corruption, not less. There are many ways to influence allocation decisions, many of them not public. Keep in mind that nearly all of the quids pro quo (Latin in this case for bribes) that ex-Rep. Duke Cunningham (R-Calif.) perpetrated were not earmarks in the traditional sense. Many were contracts with the Department of Defense or with intelligence agencies, done via private influence he exerted on executive branch employees making the contract awards in the relevant agencies.

Before the explosion of earmarks, Members of Congress shaped a lot of the allocation decisions by adding often opaque language in committee reports or via more subtle influence on the agency employees. Most were not corrupt, but trying to find links between campaign contributions and earmark requests, or trying to find a connection between earmarks implemented and the personal financial stake of the earmarkers and their families and friends, was very hard — much harder than it is in the age of transparency and earmarking, especially after major reforms in this Congress that provided much more transparency than we had before. Earmarks clearly have careened out of control, distorting the budget and moving beyond any reasonable balance of costs vs. benefits for taxpayers, and we have seen a major increase in the appearance of conflicts of interest via the nexus of campaign contributions and earmark requests. So we need more reform of this process. The suggestion coming from a group of freshmen to ban campaign contributions from executives involved with organizations receiving earmarks is a good one.

An even better idea, in my view, is for lawmakers to create credible independent processes to sift through earmark requests and thereby insulate themselves from any questionable connections. If all lawmakers created independent commissions in their districts, akin to the judicial selection commissions used by many Senators, to screen and evaluate all earmark requests and rank them as priorities for their Representatives, no one could make a credible accusation of improper connections between money and earmarking.

Despite the flaps of the past couple of weeks, most Americans are not focused on ethics issues in Congress; they have bigger things to worry about. But the low public esteem for Congress, combined with the populist anger out there fueled by a lousy economy, is a combustible combination. Failure to act firmly to get the House in order could have real consequences.

Norman Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.