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More hype than actual reform

By
August 6, 2007

Amidst much self-congratulation, Congress after several false starts has succeeded in passing a bill tightening its ethics regulations. And if the new regs won’t terribly diminish the role of cash and lobbyists’ clout in the legislative process, they will make it a lot more transparent.

Members of the House and Senate and their political committees must fully disclose those lobbyists who raise more than $15,000 for them in a six-month period by “bundling,” wrapping donations from numerous sources into a single package. Lobbyists must disclose donations made to committees, charities, organizations and foundations associated with members of Congress. These disclosures are to be carried on easily searchable databases.

The bill would end what was almost a way of life in Washington by banning meals, travel and gifts paid for by lobbyists and their clients. And the bill would end a tradition at the national political conventions by prohibiting lawmakers from attending lobbyist-paid events in their honor.

The bill takes note of the reality that many members of Congress go on to second careers as highly paid lobbyists. It would try to mitigate the “revolving door” effect by imposing one- and two-year delays between a time a member leaves offices and takes up lobbying.

The bill also denied the great advantage once enjoyed by ex-members who become lobbyists by denying them access to the House and Senate floors and cloakrooms and members-only gyms and Capitol parking.

But elsewhere, in critical areas, the ethics bill pulled its punches. One of Congress’ ongoing scandals is the growth in “earmarks,” lawmakers’ personal pork projects that escape normal budget scrutiny. As recently as 2005, these accounted for $27 billion in spending.

The bill allows the majority leaders, currently Democrats, to determine what is and isn’t an earmark and earmarks are supposed to be listed on congressional Web sites 48 hours before a floor vote but only if “technically feasible.” This elasticity has the makings of a major loophole.

Lawmakers and lobbyists have proved exceptionally adept at finding innovative ways around attempts to regulate their conduct. In the end, the effectiveness of any ethics code comes down to the character of the people who are pledged to live by it.