Congress has been so low in the polls it doesn't know which way is up. But scandals in recent years by individual lawmakers (mainly GOP) have forced a new Congress (mainly Democratic) to try to climb out of its pit of pitiful perfidy and reform its backroom M.O. That is, up to a point.
The Senate takes up a House-passed bill Thursday that will go far to curb the influence of big money and special-interest lobbies in shaping new laws and spending priorities. Political resistance to these landmark reforms still remains strong in the Senate because of a false sense of privilege and immunity. But rising public disgust – rather than apathy – at such arrogance should help pass this major change in how the people's business is conducted on Capitol Hill.
It also helps that a number of legislators are still under official investigation, with Alaska's Sen. Ted Stevens (R) being the latest. (His home was raided by the FBI on Monday.)
Among other things, the House bill opens a new window on the practice of lobbyists who "bundle" small donations into large cash for lawmakers' campaign coffers. That loophole in the campaign-finance laws should be closed up entirely. This bill wouldn't do that, but at least it would help reveal, to some degree, the corrupting link between money and legislation.
The reform was watered down by lawmakers who fear for their incumbency. Such bundling would be reported every six months, rather than every three, and only in amounts more than $15,000, rather than $5,000. Go figure.
Another worthy halfstep toward cleaning up Congress is a provision to shine light on the age-old practice of lawmakers slipping special measures into legislation for pet projects. These "earmarks" are often hidden or last-minute.
The House already has toughened its rules on earmarks, opening them up to debate. The Senate negotiators, however, faltered, and the bill now allows the majority leader, not the neutral parliamentarian, to disclose earmarks. And revealing them on a database for the public to see will be done only if "technically feasible."
Such limits would still allow many earmarks to be kept hidden. And the measure also does not require lawmakers to reveal earmarks that would benefit themselves or their families.
Another reform would end the practice of a single senator being able to secretly put a "hold" on almost any action. Many federal appointments have been delayed or blocked because of this concealed power. The bill also strikes a limited blow at the "revolving door" of former lawmakers cashing in on their influence by becoming lobbyists.
All these steps, while not exactly what they might have been, will help restore some public faith in American democracy, reduce wasteful spending, and speed up the process of legislating. They also may reduce the power of incumbents in Congress, especially the ability to collect more campaign money than new political opponents.
The Senate should not balk at this bill, which was largely shepherded to this point by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Voters need more than the ballot box to punish lawmakers who bend to money and power. They need to see tougher rules on ethics that let Congress also punish its own.