Monday, July 03, 2006

It Takes Scandal To Prompt Reform

The following article touches on a good point that I have expressed here before: the Republicans are the one who created this ethics mess we are in and the the least they can do is clean it up.

Let's consider Congressional ethics. I hear you chuckling, "This is going to be a short column!" But what is more important than the integrity of those who govern us? Who better to set the standards than we citizens?

First, some background. A generation ago, Congressmen and Senators were paid relatively low salaries that many supplemented with second jobs or by accepting exorbitant speaking fees. Conflicts of interest were everywhere. One senior House Democrat, a Brooklyn lawyer, worked from an office with two entrances. On the left, the firm name appeared, with the Congressman as the senior partner; on the right, the firm's name, without him listed. The fiction was that clients with business that might relate to the Congress entered through the right; others, the left. In the mid-1970s both the House and the Senate legislated an end to this practice by restricting outside earned income. The reformers acknowledged that they could do nothing about "unearned" income -- for example, inheritance or stock dividends -- but it was a step.

Reform efforts come in response to scandal. In 1989 two Democratic House leaders, including the Speaker, resigned, accused of profiting from their office. Dozens of congressmen were found to have used the House bank as their personal interest-free loan agency. The Democrats, who had controlled the House for forty years, were clearly guilty of arrogance of power. After regaining control of the House in 1994, the Republicans made congressional ethics one of their top priorities.

Jump ahead a decade, and GOP arrogance makes the Democrats' pale in comparison. Republican Majority Leader Tom DeLay launched the K Street Project (named for the Washington street on which many lobbyists house their firms), making clear that if lobbyists wanted their clients' needs met, they had better play ball with those in power.

The symbol of this relationship is Jack Abramoff, a powerful GOP lobbyist close to DeLay. Notorious for lavishly wining and dining lawmakers -- and for escorting them on all-expense-paid golf trips to Scotland -- Abramoff ultimately pleaded guilty to charges of corrupting public officials.

Republicans responded with reform bills. The Senate bill banned all gifts and meals from lobbyists. The House could not muster the courage to go that far, ignoring a call to ban privately funded trips. Instead, they called on the House Ethics Committee to propose rules, through which such trips would be approved in advance.

Talk about the fox guarding the henhouse. According to a June 14th report from the Center for Public Integrity, from January 2000 to June 2005, members of the House Ethics Committee took 180 privately-funded trips, with a total value exceeding half a million dollars. Some of those trips were paid for by non-profit organizations and were, in the best sense of the term, educational missions. But clearly others were not. When an organization is held in as low esteem as is the United States Congress, the appearance of impropriety is as harmful as actual misconduct. What are these people thinking?

Government corruption has reemerged in the headlines. First, the Justice Department postponed Jack Abramoff's jailing by three months, apparently because he has become a remorseful cooperating witness. On the same day, David Safavian (who was a member of Abramoff's lobbying firm and moved to the Bush administration as the chief procurement official in the General Services Administration, the government's real estate agent) was convicted of four counts of lying about his relationship with Abramoff. Safavian insisted that his participation in the Abramoff's 2002 golf trip to Scotland raised no conflict of interest -- and he insisted it with a straight face.

We in Maine have been blessed with congressmen and senators of integrity. And they are not alone. Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin would not permit his staff to participate in an ice cream party sponsored by the dairy industry because the sundaes constituted a meal in violation of the Senate's ethics bill. Is this carrying reform too far? Shouldn't Capitol Hill staffers be allowed to celebrate the arrival of summer?

I think that Durbin was right. Draw a line. Draw a clear line. And do not cross it. Don't let those whose ethical judgment can be questioned rule on others. Just as the Democrats did a decade ago, the Republicans have brought this shame on themselves. If they do not accept responsibility for cleaning up the mess they have made, they deserve the scorn of the public and repudiation at the polls.

The author of the piece above is correct when they say that if the Republicans do not accept responsibility for cleaning up the mess they created, the deserve scorn and to beat come election time.

With apathetic leaders such as John Boehner and Bill Frist, I am confident that they will do little to nothing on cleaning up the current situation we are in, which means they will face repudiation at the polls.

That means it will be up to the Democrats to clean up the mess when they take over in 2007. I am confident that they are up for the task.