Can Congress police its ethics?

Criminal probes are exposing corrupt practices in Congress, prompting calls for reform of ethics standards.

With a flurry of corruption indictments and related plea agreements threatening to become a storm, Congress is feeling the heat on ethics reform.

Criminal investigations in Texas, California, and Florida are shining a bright light on standards of conduct in Congress, helping sink public confidence in the institution to its lowest point in more than a decade.

Congress is responding. After partisan fights kept it dormant for much of the 109th Congress, the House ethics committee resumes work next month.

Meanwhile, four House Democrats last week proposed a package of reforms to help protect the integrity of the Congress. These include a ban on lobbyist-sponsored travel and lobbying on the floor of the House by former members to "make it harder for lobbyists to put their fingers on the legislative scales."

Other proposed rule changes aim to restore checks and balances to the legislative process, such as making it an ethical offense to use earmarks - items in spending bills that designate funds for a purpose, usually specific to a member's district - to buy votes, halting extended roll call votes, and prohibiting votes on legislation until members have time to familiarize themselves with it.

"People have been scared straight, and between now and Election Day will be one of the purest periods in American life," says Rep. Barney Frank (D) of Massachusetts, a sponsor. Other sponsors include Reps. David Obey (D) of Wisconsin, David Price (D) of North Carolina, and Tom Allen (D) of Maine.

Democrats haven't yet asked Republicans to sign on to the reform. "No Republican will find it easy to go against their leadership on this, and I want first to demonstrate that we have a majority of Democrats willing to make these changes - whether we're in the majority or minority," says Mr. Obey, who is leading the reform drive.

Two prominent GOP House members have already been indicted: former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R) of Texas for alleged money laundering, and former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R) of California, who has pleaded guilty to bribery. But the broadening investigation into the activities of former superlobbyist Jack Abramoff threatens to implicate at least a half-dozen more lawmakers, including Rep. Bob Ney (R) of Ohio.

Since 1998, lobbyists report spending some $13 billion to influence Congress, the White House, and federal agencies, according to the Center for Public Integrity. Over the same period, more than 200 former members of Congress and 42 former agency heads have registered as federal lobbyists.

Democrats say the scandals are a sign of a pervasive GOP culture of corruption that is affecting the cost of daily living for Americans on issues ranging from gasoline prices to the cost of prescription drugs.

"The Republican Medicare drug plan is complicated and confusing because Republicans wrote it to meet the needs of drug companies and private insurers, not the needs of Medicare beneficiaries," said House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi in a briefing with reporters last Thursday. In 2004, the healthcare industry reported spending some $325 million to lobby Congress.

Reformers outside the Congress say that neither party has been willing to clean house on Capitol Hill.

"The House has completely abdicated its constitutional responsibility to police itself," says Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics (CREW), which has prepared ethics complaints against 13 members of Congress. Without the support of a House member, those complaints can't go forward. "There is still no member of Congress, in either party, willing to file an ethics complaint," she adds.

Nearly 90 percent of Americans say that political corruption is a serious problem, according to an AP-Ipsos poll.

"There are about the same number of ethics issues in both parties. But when you're the majority party you get disproportionately more scrutiny," says Rep. Tom Cole (R) of Oklahoma, one of 10 House members on the ethics panel.

Outside groups say that investigations into the activities of lobbyist Abramoff and his associates and members of Congress could be explosive. "This is going to be one of the biggest congressional scandals ever," says Ms. Sloan, a former prosecutor.

GOP leaders insist that indictments of top GOP leaders like Mr. DeLay won't figure in midterm elections. But Democrats and outside groups say that, without reform, the ongoing scandals will further damage the institution.

"We don't really have an ethics process any more in the Congress, so that these things are not exposed or considered until this becomes a criminal law case," says former Rep. Lee Hamilton (D), who served as a member of the House ethics panel and as vice chair of the 9/11 commission.

"Somebody has to begin to think of the institution: How does conduct impact public opinion of the Congress. Today, members often take delight in making themselves look good and the institution look bad. That can only go so far and still have a representative democracy," he adds.

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