Keep the pressure on

January 22, 2007

Lest anyone doubt the ability of alert citizens to put the fear of reprisal in their elected officials, consider the manner in which the Senate was pressured last week into voting overwhelmingly to limit or give up many of its most treasured perks.

Senators were forbidden from accepting gifts, meals and travel from lobbyists, and required to pay full charter costs for use of corporate jets. Senate spouses were prohibited from joining the lobbyist corps. In a move unthinkable a year ago, the Senate also made it far easier to identify and remove the special-interest "earmarks" that so often are the prize lobbyists seek and were integral to the corruption scandals that have rocked Congress in recent years.

Neither the Senate Democratic nor Republican leader wanted to go anywhere near this far. They offered a much weaker ethics reform measure two weeks ago, and Majority Leader Harry Reid resisted attempts to strengthen it - especially in exposing those secret earmarks. But the Senate was literally shamed into approving reforms by public interest groups and an armchair army of bloggers sharply focused on the corrosive influence of the pork-barrel favor factory.

Trouble is, there's no guarantee any of the restrictions will take effect - and maybe that was the intention. The citizen monitors aroused to action by Alaska's infamous "bridge to nowhere" and further outraged by the criminal excesses of disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff will have to keep poking and prodding to make sure the reform legislation becomes law.

This breathing space for senators comes about because their leaders chose not to follow the House example of implementing ethics reforms as rules changes, which take effect immediately. Instead, the Senate measure will be subject to negotiations with the House before being sent to President Bush for his signature. Unpopular provisions can mysteriously disappear along the way.

Tom Coburn, an Oklahoma Republican and longtime opponent of earmarks, was one of only two senators to vote against the ethics bill because he suspected something fishy after the Senate accepted by voice vote and without debate his amendment to ban earmarks benefiting family or staff. "The problem in Washington is not lobbyists; the problem is us," he told his colleagues.

That's why voters are going to have to keep paying close attention.

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