Getting it right

January 05, 2007

Surveyed on the eve of the Democratic takeover of Congress, most Americans, when asked whether they thought the new crowd would be more or less corrupt than the scandal-scarred Republicans, predicted there would be no difference.

They may be right. No political party has a premium on virtue, and there were a few Democrats as well as Republicans who appeared to be involved in shady dealings during the last Congress.

But the wholesale broomsweep of the Capitol that goes along with a change in power brings with it a chance to highlight the standards expected of public officials and to ban practices that encourage them to go astray.

House Democrats made a start on that yesterday by approving tougher-than-expected curbs on gifts and favors that can be accepted from lobbyists and on the backroom bargains made for pork-barrel "earmarks." Still missing, though, is an independent means of enforcement to make the prohibitions stick.

Many, if not most, lawmakers reject the notion that they are not capable of policing themselves. But Democratic as well as Republican misadventures of the past demonstrate the need for some outside entity to at least review the validity of ethics complaints so the investigative process will be neither a whitewash nor a partisan weapon.

The relationship between lawmakers and lobbyists, which is at the heart of most ethical transgressions, is an impossible tie to break. The right to lobby - or petition the government - is guaranteed by the First Amendment, just as freedom of speech and freedom of religion are. But lobbyists need access to legislators to press their cause, and legislators' time is very limited. Thus, an intricate web of give-and-take has developed as lobbyists employ ever more creative means to attract legislators as their guests at meals, sporting events and exotic travel spots to secure private time to curry favor.

Democrats have taken aim at many of the abuses that figured prominently in the scandal surrounding disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff - banning gifts, meals and event tickets from lobbyists as well as expanding prohibitions on accepting free travel. They also took a stab at making the earmark process more visible, which, with the aid of attentive bloggers, should reduce their number.

Left untouched, though, is the inherently unhealthy connection between lobbyist access and campaign donations, which has proved particularly difficult to regulate.

Voters become jaded because corruption scandals break like waves over Capitol Hill whenever one party has been in power too long. Democrats should work hard at holding off the next wave for as long as they can.

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