New brooms?

November 22, 2006

Democrats elected on a promise of cleaning up the "culture of corruption" in Congress are not exactly leaping to the task, mop in hand.

They plan an early show of votes on proposals aimed at removing the appearance of cozy relations between lawmakers and lobbyists. But so far there seems little enthusiasm for taking on the hard tasks of reforming campaign finance laws or even assuring that ethics rules are strictly enforced. And only a handful of lawmakers in either party have any desire to shut down the "favor factory," convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff's term for the practice of attaching pet projects to legislation without review.

Democrats were elected in numbers large enough to reclaim the majority for the first time in a dozen years mostly because they were the other guys. If they don't respond swiftly with sweeping changes in the way business is done in Washington, they will not only lose their perch but will further undermine the already low regard in which public officials are held.

Their first target should be the big one: congressional earmarks, those often secret favors that not only represent bait for corrupt influences but recklessly balloon the federal budget deficit - last year to the tune of $64 billion. In fact, given that Democrats have also promised fiscal austerity, this one move could be a two-fer.

Defenders of the earmark practice argue it serves legitimate purposes: allowing lawmakers to overrule bureaucrats less sensitive to local priorities and enabling well-positioned representatives of poor states to grab a little extra for needy constituents.

But the practice has too often been abused. Money doesn't get redistributed, pet projects are simply added. Lawmakers are discouraged from questioning an earmark for fear of retribution. Earmarking has expanded far beyond annual spending bills to include any legislation with dollars attached. A Democratic proposal to make some earmarks more visible is far too weak.

So much went rotten in the last Congress - two lawmakers and Mr. Abramoff going to prison, others still under investigation, and the page scandal that toppled former Rep. Mark Foley - it's hard to know what tipped the balance. But outrage at earmarks such as Alaska's "bridge to nowhere" surely played some role.

If Democrats could scrub out the earmark process, they'd be making a major contribution to cleaner and cheaper government.

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