Lawmaker ethics. An oxymoron?
Democrats promised to make Congress more ethical. Did they succeed? A little ... maybe.
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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.Skip to next paragraph
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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."