The Democrats won the 2006 congressional elections on two issues: Iraq and cleaning up corruption in Washington. Which problem seems tougher to you? For Congress, ending centuries of sectarian violence and launching democracy in a fractious Middle Eastern nation now looks more likely than agreeing on even modest ethics reform.
Fortunately, while Congress deliberates, the national call for clean government is being heard and heeded in city halls across the country – many of which have much to teach the Hill.
Consider Atlanta. Former mayor Bill Campbell and 11 aides and associates were convicted or pleaded guilty on a range of criminal charges ranging from corruption and racketeering to tax evasion. His successor, current mayor Shirley Franklin, used that experience to set real rules on conflicts of interest and disclosure, give an ethics board the power to investigate and enforce, and beef up ethics staffing and budget. She won back city government's self-respect, not to mention a JFK Profile in Courage Award.
Or look to the city of Oakland, Calif., which in 1996 created an independent, uncompensated public ethics commission whose members are allowed no direct interest in any city business – whether getting elected, getting a contract, getting a paycheck; or supporting, opposing, funding, endorsing or working for any candidate or measure in a city election. Cynics may think all local politics is payola. With independent oversight, the kleptocracy crumbles.
The most remarkable example of urban ethics reform can be found in Philadelphia. Former mayor William Green once described city council as "the worst legislative body in the free world." Current mayor John Street called them "nothing but thieves and crooks." That was before the FBI had to bug Mr. Street's office and raid the city's finance, treasury, and pension operations – and the mayor's older brother (a consultant) was indicted for collecting millions in "pay to play" bribes for city contracts.
In a town too long accustomed to municipal manipulation, with 30 federal indictments in city hall in the past four years alone, the likelihood of a breakthrough in good governance seemed scant. Until a councilman, Michael Nutter, launched legislation to create the city's first board of ethics, limit campaign contributions, provide a transparent process for city contracts, and prohibit contributors from getting no-bid business. Campaigning on reforms to clean up corruption and shut down pay-to-play, Mr. Nutter won a five-way Democratic primary for the mayor's office and is poised to lead a city that knows it deserves better.
Contrast this push for ethics reform at the local level with your "higher" forms of government. Much of the crisis of legitimacy facing the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Trade Organization stems from a lack of transparency, further obscured (but not excused) by veils of diplomatic secrecy. And in the US Congress, despite some righteously good rhetoric, the watered-down ethics bill that dribbled out of the House last month didn't even call for an outside ethics commission – as Oakland, Atlanta, and other cities have – relying instead on "peer review." That's a practical impossibility in a legislature, where members need goodwill to get anything done.
The 110th Congress is running a replay of the 109th in 2006, when Republicans promised real reform after the Abramoff lobbying scandal – but then nudged weak bills through the House and Senate that never made it to conference.
This year's congressional conk out reflects a lack of resolve, not resources. Among the nearly 15,000 ethics officials on the federal payroll (excluding inspectors generals' offices), there are no doubt plenty of excellent ideas for ethics reform.
But for now, consider raising your voice in support of just three. First, public reporting on lobbyists' bundling of contributions. After the success of President Bush's fundraising "Pioneers," groups like Sen. Hillary Clinton's "Hillraisers" are corralling undisclosed contributions well into seven figures. Second, public disclosure of lobbyist-financed media campaigns and so-called astroturf (as in fake grassroots) communications to sway opinion. Some of these ad programs are now running into eight figures. And third, advance disclosure of so-called spending earmarks dropped into larger bills, so that pork projects are made public before the magic legislative dust settles.
This last item really matters, since earmarks tripled in the past decade to a total cost of $64 billion in 2006 – not to mention ironic, since Congressional "EarMarxists" are running right over mayors and local governments in their race to redistribute wealth for pet projects.
A Congress that deserves your money, not to mention your trust, has to do more than bar lobbyists from the floor and ban gifts and golf junkets. The party that gets real about ethics and campaign finance reform will keep (or win) the seats needed to earn their majority next year.
• Mark Lange is a former presidential speechwriter.