Of Congress and crooks

August 03, 2007

Service in Congress is a rarefied life driven largely by money: the need to raise it for campaigns, the pressure to send it back home, the easy access to it offered by folks seeking favors.

Landmark ethics legislation headed to President Bush's desk after a final vote in the Senate yesterday won't stop lawmakers who arrive in Washington with felonious intentions, or prevent a predictable percentage from being led astray. But it may remove some of the temptation and opportunity, as well as make unsavory relationships easier for the public to see.

Senators raised valid complaints, though, about the tepid steps taken to expose earmarks, the pet projects that often become the currency of corruption. Procedures for exposing those spending favors should be tightened in future legislation.

Enactment of ethics legislation is a cyclical event prompted by the periodic scandals that have given Congress such a black eye. In this case, the major factor was the downfall of lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who plied lawmakers with fancy dinners and trips in return for favors for his clients.

In addition, two Republican House members were sent to jail last year for abusing their office, a Democratic House member has been indicted on corruption charges, and at least eight lawmakers - six Republicans and two Democrats - are under federal investigation. Just this week, the home of Alaska Republican Sen. Ted Stevens was searched by federal investigators looking for evidence that he traded favors with an energy company executive.

The ethics bill tries to curb such transgressions in part by making relationships between lawmakers and lobbyists more visible.

Lawmakers would be required for the first time to identify lobbyists who "bundle" for them packages of campaign contributions now listed only by the individual donors. Lobbyists would also have to detail their own campaign contributions, as well as payments to presidential libraries, inaugural committees and charities controlled by legislators. Further, lawmakers would no longer be allowed to attend parties given in their honor at national conventions.

Missing from the measure is a guarantee that earmarks would be subject to advance disclosure so critics have the time and information to raise a protest. We'd like to see an outright ban on spending items that haven't been reviewed and assessed through the regular budget process. But greater disclosure through the Internet would be a start.

The cost of corruption to lawmakers may be jail time for a few but a loss of confidence for the entire Congress. Last year's scandals played a major role in ousting the Republican majority. Those now in charge should not only pass the toughest rules possible but live up to the spirit of them as well.

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