GOP housecleaning must be thorough
This week, in the wake of corruption scandals that have sullied the GOP-led House of Representatives, Speaker Dennis Hastert of Illinois unveiled a lobbying reform package to clean up ethical lapses on the Hill. But will he also vacuum under the sofa?
The signature of a good housekeeper is thoroughness, getting to those hard-to-reach places and attending to details.
Mr. Hastert, the House's leading Republican, can be commended for starting an ethics mop-up. He's suggesting legislation that would essentially ban lobbyist gift giving; bar privately funded travel for lawmakers; increase lobbyist disclosure requirements, and extend from one to two years the blackout time before former members of Congress can lobby on Capitol Hill.
Some aspects of the proposals are short on detail (will former members of Congress be allowed to direct lobbying, even if they don't make the calls themselves?) as well as overly broad (the travel ban might prevent worthwhile education trips).
But these proposals should generally make it more difficult for special interests and lawmakers to engage in mutual favor-granting. Governments should not be for sale. Lobbyists who buy their way to legislative change and political action (e.g. Jack Abramoff), and members of Congress who accept bribes (e.g. resigned Rep. Duke Cunningham of California), subvert the democratic process of an open competition of ideas.
Still, the changes outlined by Hastert (many of them mirrored in plans put forth by Democrats), fall short of a thorough housecleaning, and leave large dust bunnies behind.
One that needs clearing away is what's known as "unauthorized earmarks" - lawmakers' pet spending projects. Reformers in Congress can try to push lobbyists away from the trough, but as long as lawmakers keep filling it with wasteful, pork-barrel spending, the incentive remains.
Such earmarks are endemic to both parties, but they've gotten way out of hand lately. Last year, in fact, was a record, with Congress spending $27 billion on pork (a 19 percent increase over the year before) that involved 14,000 projects (a 31 percent increase).
These projects get tacked onto spending bills, sometimes in the dead of night. When they're not part of the legislative text, they're not amendable - nor are they read by most lawmakers. Reforming this area is sensitive, because lawmakers use this kind of spending to win elections and keep key constituents happy. But bringing transparency to earmarking - and perhaps even putting limits on such spending - is required and should be supported by both parties.
Another unsightful dust bunny: the fact that lobbyists can, and do, head up campaign fundraising events for lawmakers. This makes for far too cozy a relationship between the two groups. It also allows for a loophole in the travel-ban part of the Hastert plan. Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona says he's on to this scam. Let's hope he stays on top of it.
Lastly, even if lobbying and earmark reform become law, it needs to be enforced with much better congressional oversight.
New GOP party leaders are about to be elected in the House. They need to be industrial-strength cleaners.