It’s reform season in Washington, and high time too. But a mindless rush to be seen to be “doing something” about congressional ethics may not lead to any reforms worthy of the name. Some of the proposals being considered seem highly unlikely to be effective. Some are liberal policy ideas hitching a ride on the reform wagon. (Democrats, led by Barney Frank, have proposed some worthwhile reforms, but pretend that changing the budget rules to make it harder to cut taxes counts as an “ethics reform.” No thanks.) Congress should reject the spurious reforms and take up the real thing.
Tightening the gift ban, so that lobbyists can’t take members out to dinner, strikes us as a way to generate a lot of paperwork without doing much to fight corruption. Congressmen can’t be bought for a dinner.
An all-expense-paid trip to a glamorous locale is another matter. We were pleased to see Speaker Dennis Hastert come out for a ban on privately funded travel by congressmen Tuesday. Congressmen’s travel should be funded either by the taxpayers (for official trips) or themselves (for vacations). Some congressmen have expressed the worry that their colleagues will not take serious fact-finding trips abroad for fear that voters will resent the expense. But the vast majority of lobbyist-paid trips aren’t serious business: How many facts are really being found on the world’s golf courses? Voters will be able to tell which trips were worth their expense.
Hastert made his remarks about private travel as Rep. David Dreier, the man he chose to devise ethics reforms, reported his preliminary results. Dreier noted that a ban on private travel was being considered. But many of the other reforms seem more cosmetic than substantial. Former members of the House have access to the House floor and gym; Dreier is considering cutting off that access for former members who lobby. That won’t do much to reduce their influence, and it won’t affect the vast majority of lobbyists. Banning former members and senior congressional staffers from lobbying within two years of leaving Congress is a reform that sounds good, but will have little bite. Existing “revolving door” restrictions have been easy to evade.
Dreier said that House Republicans are also considering eliminating the pension for any congressman convicted of a felony related to his official duties. We suspect that most people who hear about this proposal will have the same reactions we did: wondering why this is not already the rule, and wondering why congressmen should get a free pass on felonies they commit in their spare time.
“There should be disclosure
of which congressmen, and which
lobbyists, wanted which earmarked
spending projects in budget bills.”
We think that the campaign-finance rules should be looser, others that they should be tighter. Either way, there is no good reason for the political donations of Indian tribes to face less stringent regulations, as they do now. John McCain should be challenged to close this loophole. On the other hand, his proposal to require full disclosure about who’s paying for campaigns to affect public policy–including “grassroots” campaigns–looks worthwhile.
Finally, reformers in both parties should pick up two important reforms proposed by Congressman Frank. There should be disclosure of which congressmen, and which lobbyists, wanted which earmarked spending projects in budget bills. In many cases, the congressmen will be happy to boast about those projects to their voters. Pork gets some members reelected (and gets some meritorious legislation enacted). If the congressmen are not willing to stand up for the projects, on the other hand, they shouldn’t put the earmarks in.
And the length of the congressional work week should be extended. We know, we know: No man’s life or liberty is safe while the legislature is in session. But the current Tuesday-to-Thursday congressional schedule hasn’t exactly ushered in a golden age of laissez faire–and hasn’t made for improved deliberation or oversight, either.
This isn’t an exhaustive list of worthwhile reforms; we haven’t even touched on the need for new limits on spending that would, among other things, reduce the corrupting potential of earmarks. As for the cosmetic reforms, they don’t seem positively harmful, and it wouldn’t be terrible if they ended up in a final package for political reasons. But they shouldn’t crowd out the genuine reforms, and it is those on which would-be reformers–including the Republican House members vying for leadership posts–should be judged.