Sullied Congress needs an extreme makeover

April 13, 2006|By VICTORIA CLARKE

WASHINGTON -- Former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay may be gone, but Congress' problems are not.

It's obvious to everyone outside the coddling confines of the Washington Beltway that Congress' bad image is grounded squarely in the reality of its bad behavior - behavior that, like the image, is shared by Republicans and Democrats alike. Perceptions won't change until the facts do.

Cosmetic - or, depending on your perspective, comical - half-measures such as a proposal to ban registered lobbyists from the congressional gym only reinforce the public's accurate sense that legislators live in an alternate ethical universe. Congress can't get its house in order with new drapes and a fresh coat of paint. And the weak lobbying reform efforts wandering out of the House and Senate won't cut it. It's time for Extreme Makeover: Congressional Edition.

In the age of transparency - when cable news is on the air 24/7 and any blogger with a modem has a global audience - image and reality have converged. Bad news has nowhere to hide. Congress' problem isn't that the public doesn't understand the facts; it's that people know exactly what's going on.

Yet elected officials, unwilling to confront the reality that they are too readily influenced by money, are attempting to paper over what they regard as a cosmetic problem with superficial fixes.

Republicans and Democrats alike congratulated themselves for proposing a ban on lobbyist-funded travel such as the Scotland golfing adventures that launched the current wave of scandals.

Many Americans reply: Did you actually need a rule to tell you that was wrong? The answer, evidently, is "yes," as some members of Congress are unable to imagine a world in which they buy their own plane tickets or pay their own greens fees.

The reforms embraced thus far are a spin doctor's prescription, not the tough medicine the situation requires. They're good for a press release, but they do little to change the underlying facts.

Congress needs to join most Americans in a world of ethical absolutes: no gifts, no trips, no meals - no exchanges of anything of value beyond a handshake.

Some members complain such draconian measures would force them to the extremity of holding business lunches at fast-food chains. There are worse fates, not to mention worse burgers. But denizens of Washington might take some solace in that they can eat wherever they please, provided they pay their own way.

Other politicians protest that fact-finding trips are necessary for doing their jobs. Indeed they are, which is why any trip worth taking is one worth asking the taxpayers to finance.

Congress should require complete disclosure of every contact with lobbyists - down to the time of day, the length of the telephone call and the topics discussed. Members would likely protest that such a requirement is impractical, to which three replies are in order:

The first is that lobbyists - in strict obedience to the higher god of hourly billing - already keep records at that level of detail.

Second, politicians' every move is already reported somewhere; they might as well use transparency to their advantage.

Finally, transparency would change the behavior of those on both sides of the equation. Members of Congress are less likely to do that which they are afraid to confess. And the more the public sees of the unglamorous trenches in which most members of Congress toil, the less likely they are to see routine - and perfectly reasonable - contacts with lobbyists as insidious.

Most of all, transparency recognizes that images can be spun, but facts can't. Congress has a bad image because members of Congress engage in bad behavior. Republicans can put lipstick on that pig and Democrats can insist on applying another layer in a more vivid color. In the age of transparency, voters are likely to sniff out the bacon either way. Lipstick won't get the job done. An extreme makeover can.

Victoria Clarke, a former assistant secretary of defense for public affairs, is the author of "Lipstick on a Pig: Winning in the No-Spin Era by Someone Who Knows the Game." Her e-mail is

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