Dueling reform packages only cosmetic

    Congressional Republicans and Democrats have offered dueling
    ethics-reform proposals — in the Republicans’ case, to try to stem the
    Abramoff lobbying scandal; and in the Democrats’ case, to exploit it.

    First, the Republicans had to clear up a bit of awkwardness, replacing
    Rep. Bob Ney, R-Ohio, who could be the next shoe to drop in the
    Abramoff probe, as chairman of the House committee that will handle the
    reforms.

    Many of the proposals are worthwhile and _ temporarily
    _ could improve the ethical climate in Congress. Some of those include:
    a ban on “dead of night” insertions in bills; a waiting period between
    the time a bill emerges from committee and the final vote, to give
    members a chance to read what they’re voting on; banning former members
    who have become lobbyists from the House floor; and timely, accessible
    disclosure of trips aboard private aircraft.

    Others are more
    problematic, like tightening the limits on free travel, meals and
    gifts. These might clean up the appearance of unseemly coziness with
    special interests, but they do not address the much more critical issue
    of political fund-raising events.

    And other proposals _ like
    extending from one year to two the time a lawmaker has to wait to
    register as a lobbyist after leaving _ just kick the can down the road.

    We would add a ban on “earmarks,” special-interest spending provisions
    added to bills outside the normal appropriations process, often in
    “dead of night” fashion. These earmarks added up to over $27 billion in
    spending _ on items like the infamous “bridge to nowhere” _ in the last
    fiscal year, according to a watchdog group.

    We would also urge a
    return to “paygo” rules, where new spending and new tax cuts must be
    offset with spending cuts and tax increases elsewhere in the budget.
    One reason Congress is in this ethical fix is its wide-open approach to
    federal spending.

    And, too, we would like the House ethics
    committee, emasculated by the Republican leadership, restored to a
    position of clout and prestige, with the power to initiate
    investigations and to accept complaints from any source.

    None of
    these will work for very long without a change in the culture of
    Congress so that the members will not tolerate shady practices. The
    members are too protective of each other and too loath to speak out, as
    epitomized by the axiom “to get along, go along.” The “K Street
    Project” _ to get legislation passed, hire Republicans and raise money
    for GOP candidates _ had sleaze written all over it, but there was no
    institutional, and little individual, denunciation of what was clearly
    a “pay to play” scheme.

    (Contact Dale McFeatters at McFeattersD(at)SHNS.com)