Cleaning Up Congress: Ethics and Reform

Published 11/13/2006

In her first statement after the Democratic takeover of the House, the presumptive new speaker, Nancy Pelosi of California, pledged that her party would create “the most honest, the most open and the most ethical Congress in history.”
History, however, should give citizens pause before they celebrate the dawn of a new day. Pelosi’s promise is eerily similar to the vows of her two predecessors.

Notably, in this election, Democrats took back the seats that they lost in 1994 when Newt Gingrich, who became speaker, led a Republican takeover based in part on his promise to create the most ethical Congress in history. Yet, ethics quickly gave way to earmarks, and Gingrich left the House in scandal.

We heard the same words from Dennis Hastert in 1999, when he became speaker. During Hastert’s speakership, the leadership actually loosened ethics rules and prevented some bipartisan reforms from coming to the House floor. Hastert even engineered the removal of GOP members from the ethics committee who had voted to admonish former majority leader Tom DeLay for his misconduct — before DeLay resigned under indictment.

This history explains why lobbyists on K Street are not packing moving boxes in anticipation of an outbreak of good government. After all, these same Democrats remained silent for many years in the face of corrupt practices, often engaging in the very conduct that would now have to be prohibited.

A vote against corruption

Even so, there is one unexpected glimmer of hope: They might not have a choice. To the surprise of both parties, exit polls cited corruption in Congress as one of the most important issues motivating citizens to vote. President Bush had campaigned for some of the most corrupt members of Congress. His political adviser, Karl Rove, admitted after the elections that “the profile of corruption in the exit polls was bigger than I’d expected.”

Of course, “reform” can take the most curious forms in the parallel moral universe of Congress. For example, in 1997, the mislabeled House Ethics Reform Task Force moved to prevent ethics charges rather than ethics violations. Not only did the members bar citizens from bringing charges, but both parties also entered into a secret 7-year moratorium on any ethics charges by members.

While Republicans richly deserve the lion’s share of blame for the grotesquely corrupt 109th Congress, it is only fair to note that ranking Democrats have long fought to preserve and benefit from many of the same loopholes and technicalities.

Democratic whip Dick Durbin of Illinois has been criticized for accepting trips for himself and his wife that were paid for by outside groups such as the not-for-profit Aspen Institute. Likewise, the presumptive Senate majority leader, Harry Reid of Nevada, was recently scrutinized for alleged ethics lapses, including a controversial land deal in Las Vegas and the use of campaign funds to give Christmas bonuses to workers at his luxury condo building in Washington.

None of this means that the Democrats cannot show that they are capable of personal change with needed political reform. Yet, the last Democratic proposals for ethics reforms contain obvious gaps that would allow the continuation of corrupt practices, including some favored by their leadership.

To-do list

If Pelosi is serious about “draining the swamp,” here are 10 practices that would have to end:

•Free vacations. Prohibit travel for members and their family and staff paid by outside groups, including not-for-profit organizations.

•Playing the market. Bar members from legislating in areas where they have financial interests by closing a loophole in the definition of “outside income,” which excludes investments and stocks. Better yet, require the use of blind trusts by members (already used by executive and judicial officers).

•Quid pro quo deals. End the practice of receiving windfall private deals from partners, who then receive generous government contracts. Require recusal from any matter in which a business partner has a direct financial interest.

•Self-policing. Create an independent office of ethics in which non-members investigate and rule on allegations of unethical conduct.

•Misuse of campaign funds. Prohibit the use of such funds for any purpose other than direct campaign costs for the original recipient, barring the transfer of funds to other candidates.

•Family lobbyists. Bar members from any official contact with family members who are employed as lobbyists and require recusal from any committee with jurisdiction over issues on which a spouse or a child is a lobbyist. Enact an ethics principle that expressly condemns the employment of spouses or children as lobbyists as harmful to the institution.

•Family businesses. Strengthen nepotism rules, including a ban on the hiring of spouses and family as campaign staff or contractors.

•Gifts. Change the scope of prohibited gifts to include the use of private jets by members and catered food for members or staff. Also require the valuation of gifts by an independent ethics committee.

•Club privileges. End all special access to the floor and other areas for former members that allows them free access as lobbyists.

•Earmarks. The primary currency for corrupt practices and pork barrel projects remains earmarks — special pet projects inserted into budgets outside of the usual competitive bidding and appropriations processes. Democrats have proposed changes but not the most obvious: Ban earmarks.

Believing in Pelosi’s promise is the ultimate victory of hope over experience. Indeed, Democratic proposals still fall short of a true cleaning as opposed to a quick dust and polish in the “first 100 hours.” Yet, if she implements these 10 reforms, Pelosi can prove that it is possible for reformed sinners to sin no more.

Jonathan Turley is the Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University and a member of USA TODAY’s board of contributors.