Getting serious about reform

It turns out that Congress was serious about ethics reform with the Senate following the House in passing a strong corrective to business as usual and by a reassuringly large margin of 96 to 2. And they did it before the State of the Union address, the traditional kickoff to the legislative year.

Both houses either banned or curbed some of the gaudier excesses — lobbyist- and corporate-paid or subsidized ravel; free tickets to sporting events, the theater and concerts; hosting lavish bashes at the national political conventions.

As the Senate was acting, Congress received a dark reminder of why these measures were really necessary. A federal judge sentenced former Ohio Republican Rep. Bob Ney to two and a half years in prison for swapping official favors for gifts and luxury travel in connection with a spreading lobbying scandal.

The most effective measures in the bill, however, are probably not the bans and prohibitions but the public disclosure requirements. Those especially should go a long way toward cleaning up the growing black market in slipping favors for special interest into legislation.

Lawmakers will now be required to identify pet spending projects and specially targeted tax breaks they add to bills. And in the case of tariff suspensions, a burgeoning field of special interest favors, the lawmakers would have to name the company that would benefit from the suspension and justify the tax break in writing.

One of the potentially most far-reaching — and one that the House must still adopt — is public disclosure of “bundling” wherein a lobbyist raises campaign funds from his friends and clients, each contribution with the legal limit, and hands them over to a favored legislator in a single bundle. Being able to accept bundled contribution is a huge — and legal — advantage for incumbents but it’s always nice to know where the money is coming from.

The best defense against corruption in Congress is the rectitude of its individual members and the vigilance of their leaders. Still, all new Congresses come to town talking a good game on ethics. It looks as if the 110th is actually doing something about it.