Lawmaker ethics. An oxymoron?

Democrats promised to make Congress more ethical. Did they succeed? A little ... maybe.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

A decisive issue in the 2006 congressional campaign – corruption in Washington – now falls well behind gas prices and the economy as a theme in Campaign 2008, and reformers are worried.

The landmark reforms adopted early in the 110th Congress set a higher ethical bar for members of Congress. But with public interest on ethical issues cooling, activists worry that lawmakers are already finding ways around the new rules and that reforms needed to continue the process will not be forthcoming in the next Congress.

"It's unclear if the new rules have fundamentally changed the climate in Washington," says Keith Ashdown with Taxpayers for Common Sense, a Washington-based think tank.

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"Corruption and ethics still matter – just ask someone in Alaska – but it's a second-tier issue to the economy," he says. The key question is whether "the leadership remembers to follow up on the strides they made in reforming how Congress does its business."

There's no lack of high-profile corruption cases on Capitol Hill. Sen. Ted Stevens (R) of Alaska faces charges of filing false financial disclosure reports on some $250,000 in gifts from an oil services company. Mr. Stevens also faces a tough primary race on Aug. 26.

Rep. William Jefferson (D) of Louisiana is fighting a 16-count indictment for racketeering, wire fraud, money laundering, and soliciting bribes. Rep. Rick Renzi (R) of Arizona has been indicted on federal fraud charges over an allegedly illegal land deal that benefited family interests. And retiring Rep. John Doolittle (R) of California, who has not been charged with a crime, is one of an unspecified number of lawmakers caught up in an ongoing federal investigation involving convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

But reformers on and off Capitol Hill say that these cases were not aggressively pursued by the ethics committees in Congress – a sign that the old culture is persisting.

"Some of these cases are from conduct that's been ongoing for a long time. The ethics committees showed they didn't care, but the Justice Department shows that it does care," says Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.

"On the margins, people are more careful. I don't think right now anybody would take a private golf trip to Scotland," she says, referring to a notorious Abramoff-sponsored trip in 2000 that included then-House majority whip Tom DeLay (R) of Texas. "But in a couple of years, if no one pays attention, I wouldn't be surprised to see it come back up."

Certainly, members of Congress are under more scrutiny: Free golf vacations and lavish sit-down meals at a lobbyist's expense are out. And lawmakers face deeper scrutiny on less obvious perks, such as a highly favorable mortgage or rental agreement.

But it's still OK for lobbyists to serve finger food if everyone stands up. And congressional earmarks – funding directed to member projects and a key element of the "pay-to-play" culture of Congress – are not yet fully disclosed to the public.

One of the key arguments to be tested in court in several of these upcoming cases is whether members of Congress can seek protection from prosecution in the "speech and debate" clause of the Constitution. Both Speaker Nancy Pelosi and former Republican Speaker Dennis Hastert cited this clause in arguing to exclude evidence from searches of members' offices or records that might be related to official duties.

"This issue will be before the Supreme Court in the next five years. The Justice Department says it's already impeding investigations of members of Congress," says Ms. Sloan.

In a dramatic moment on the House floor, Rep. Charles Rangel (D) of New York, chairman of the powerful Ways and Means Committee, volunteered to cosponsor a resolution with Republicans asking for a probe by the ethics panel of allegations that he violated the gift ban by accepting below-market rent on four apartments in New York City.

"Showing that I do want this to be sincerely investigated, I am asking the minority to allow me to join in with them in this [censure] resolution to say this matter should be cleared up," he said on the floor of the House on July 31. The censure measure was failed by a vote of 254 to 138.

This week, GOP Reps. Darrell Issa of California and Mark Souder of Indiana called on the House ethics committee to investigate allegedly illegal gifts to members and staff from mortgage lender Countrywide Financial Corp.

With just weeks to go in the 110th Congress, it's unlikely that these issues will be resolved. It's also unclear whether a new Congress will pursue ethics reform as aggressively as the current one.

"The moments when government reform is a top issue [for voters] are rare and the window closes quickly," says Julian Zelizer, a congressional historian at Princeton University. "Usually people care more about the economy or national security. Now voters care more about mortgages than a notorious lobbyist. Lobbying reform won't help them with their monthly payment. Legislators know this so are again willing to push the boundaries until we reach another moment where reform matters on the campaign trail, which could be decades."

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