Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Coming Clean in the Capitol

Published: August 1, 2007

It took a while, and the process certainly hasn’t been pretty, but the Democrats are close to winning passage of their long-promised ethics reform bill. We suspect it will take a lot more than one new law to break the binding and corrupting ties of lobbyist cash and politics. But the bill, which the House approved with overwhelming, bipartisan enthusiasm yesterday, is a good start.

If the Senate needs further impetus to follow, federal agents supplied it Monday when they raided the Alaska home of Senator Ted Stevens. Mr. Stevens, who denies any wrongdoing, has the distinction of being the longest-serving Republican in the Senate’s history. Unfortunately, when it comes to getting caught up in an investigation of political corruption, he’s just one in a long bipartisan line.

One of the important aims of the new legislation is to let the public see for itself how much money is being traded for access. For the first time, the lavish torrent of campaign money from eager lobbyists to grateful politicians would have to be reported quarterly to the public via the Internet, with tighter scrutiny and penalties for violators. The reports would highlight lobbyists’ so-called bundling, the massing of individual donations into eye-popping packages for politicians and their party committees.

And the bill would require that all earmarks — those budget-busting pet projects that fall like manna from heaven — as well as who’s sponsoring them be identified on the Internet before final passage. The bill would also curb such abuses as corporate-paid gifts and travel. It would end lobbyist-sponsored galas “honoring” ranking politicians at national conventions. It would even ban the ludicrous pensions now being paid to Congressional alumni doing prison time for felonies.

The bill is not perfect. It doesn’t place enough restrictions on the rush of lawmakers into lobbying careers, but it is a major step toward resisting the Capitol corruption laid bare in the downfall of Jack Abramoff. He’s the über-lobbyist whose lavish wooing of dodgy lawmakers led to the Republicans’ loss of Congressional control. In the minority now, Senate Republicans would be foolish to block this urgently needed reform, as some are threatening.

The commitment to reform goes far beyond any party’s campaign pledge. The Senate Republican leader, Mitch McConnell, has an opportunity to join the majority leader, Harry Reid, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in delivering bipartisan reform. Voters are watching closely to see if Congress finally has the courage to clean itself up.