First steps toward ethics reform in Congress

Incoming speaker Pelosi unveils a reform agenda – even as corruption probes of two Democrats proceed.

Even as Democrats vowed this week to tackle ethics reform head on when they take up the gavels on Capitol Hill in January, they are already wary of land mines that could shatter their bid to rebuild Congress's image.

Citing the mandate from voters in the midterm elections to clean up a culture of corruption, incoming House speaker Nancy Pelosi promised a sweeping reform agenda Thursday, including a first-ever "outside enforcement mechanism" for congressional ethics.

"The ethics process over the last few years has lost the confidence of the American people," she said in a briefing with reporters, where she predicted the "most honest and open Congress in history."

Other elements unveiled this week include a ban on "earmarks" or member projects for fiscal year 2007, a five-day congressional workweek to better process "the people's business," and a new oversight panel on intelligence along the lines proposed by the 9/11 Commission back in 2004.

But even as House Democrats try to burnish their image on ethics, they are being forced to work around the legal woes of their own members, including two in key positions.

The reelection of Rep. William Jefferson (D) of Louisiana in a runoff, despite the $90,000 in possible payoffs that federal investigators found stashed in his home freezer, stunned many of his colleagues, who had expected the eight-term lawmaker to lose the contest. To defuse criticism, Ms. Pelosi and the Democratic Steering Committee denied Mr. Jefferson his request to keep a seat on the powerful Ways and Means Committee, pending the outcome of a federal investigation.

Rep. Alan Mollohan (D) of West Virginia is facing a federal investigation over earmarks he sponsored and profitable real estate deals. He is in line to chair the subcommittee that oversees the budget of the agency that is investigating him – a decision now pending in the House Appropriations Committee. Some members of the Congressional Black Caucus say that Democrats are holding Mr. Jefferson, who is black, to a higher standard than they are Mr. Mollohan. Republicans say both cases signal that Democrats face their own culture-of-corruption issues.

Other potential pitfalls for ethics reform are the unfinished spending bills, including the thousands of earmarks attached to them.

Democrats could have just slogged through the bills, as Republicans did with leftover spending legislation when the GOP took back control of the Senate in 2003. Instead, Democrats last week opted to pass a joint resolution that is expected to keep spending for FY 2007 at the level of FY 2006 – with some adjustments – and put a hold on earmarks until FY 2008.

"It is not a perfect solution, but it is the best available given the fiscal mess the 109th Congress has left behind," said Pelosi and incoming Senate majority leader Harry Reid in a joint statement.

Fiscal watchdog groups praised the decision to eliminate earmarks for this fiscal year, but say Democrats will need to be more explicit about reforms than they have been to date if they are to clean up the corruption and appearance of wrongdoing associated with the earmark process.

"There is a serious intent to make some dramatic changes in how Congress operates, but whether here is the political will to enact proposals that will actually do that remains to be seen," says Ellen Miller of the Sunlight Foundation, a new coalition to promote transparency and accountability in government.

Others are waiting to see the details. "Democrats need to do more than disclose the sponsor and recipient of an earmark. They must also limit the number and amount that can be spent on earmarks, prohibit earmarks not subject to a committee hearing...," says Tom Schatz, president of Citizens Against Government Waste. Only two Democrats voted last week to require the Pentagon to evaluate the effectiveness of earmarks, he adds.

In the Senate, meanwhile, Democrats are still working on a comprehensive ethics package. "Ethics, lobby, and earmark reform will be the first bill we'll do," says Democratic leadership spokesman Jim Manley.

But this week, they are also concerned about whether they will lose control of the chamber. Sen. Tim Johnson (D) of South Dakota was rushed to the hospital for emergency surgery Wednesday. If he is unable to serve, the Republican governor of South Dakota, Mike Rounds, would appoint his replacement. Should he choose a member of his own party, the new Senate, which is divided 51-49, would become 50-50. Because Vice President Dick Cheney would cast any tying vote, the Senate would revert to Republican control. In the past, however, senators have served despite being incapacitated.

"No one has ever been removed from the Senate on the grounds of physical or mental incapacity. It's only been on the grounds of treason," says Senate historian Richard Baker. The Senate expelled 14 senators for treason during the Civil War – the last time a senator has been removed. Over the years, senators have been absent for months at a time when coping with disability. "The Constitution is specific on qualifications to be a senator, and one of them is not robust good health," Mr. Baker adds.

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