A Nervous GOP Makes Its Choice
The upset victory of Rep. John Boehner of Ohio in the contest for House majority leader reflects the nervousness of congressional Republicans about the lobbying scandal that has rocked Washington.
Rep. Roy Blunt of Missouri was the favorite to be elevated from majority whip, the No. 3 job, and he led on the first ballot, falling seven votes short of a majority in the three-way contest. But the support of the eliminated third-place finisher, Rep. John Shadegg of Arizona, swung to Boehner, costing Blunt the job.
Blunt has been closely allied with Rep. Tom DeLay of Texas, who was forced to resign as majority leader, in part because of his criminal indictments on campaign finance charges in Texas and in part because of his office's intimate ties with convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff.
As Tom Edsall documented in The Post, Blunt had built a network of relationships with the lobbying community on K Street almost as extensive as DeLay's. Boehner has his own lobbying ties, and with his elevation to majority leader, the Republicans still face a need to take strong action to clean up the lobbying-money scandals in Washington.
The ideas they have been discussing until now touch on only the most obvious outrages in the current system. If adopted, they would end privately financed junkets with lobbyists and put stricter limits on gifts. Even these modest reforms produced squawks in a closed-door Republican caucus this week.
But Republicans are playing with fire if they ignore the growing public disgust with the spectacle of special-interest government in Washington. Democrats -- who were anything but pure when they were in power -- have grabbed the corruption issue and come forward with a serious set of proposed rule changes. They would not only snip some of the lines linking lawmakers to lobbyists but end the abusive practices Republicans have used to steamroll the legislative process.
Two ideas have come from outside Congress that would go much farther in cleaning up the system. Neither is likely to be adopted, but they serve as benchmarks for the seriousness of so-called reform.
One has to do with the enforcement of congressional standards. That is now in the hands of the "ethics" committees of the House and Senate, made up of sitting members. The assignments are made by the congressional leadership, and most members avoid the duty because they do not want to sit in judgment of their colleagues.
At the moment, both committees are largely stymied by partisan disputes. But even if they could be reactivated, it's obvious that only in the most outrageous cases will these committees call straying lawmakers to account.
A number of outside groups have suggested, instead, a commission with former members of Congress to take on this onerous duty. Similar commissions have worked well in several states. This would signal serious enforcement by Congress.
The other idea comes from a former congressional and Labor Department staff member, Steve Hofman, and is as simple as it would be effective. To deal with the problem of "earmarks," the special-interest provisions often slipped into bills to finance local projects, Hofman suggests an amendment to House rules.
His rule would allow any House member to lodge a point of order against any provision of any bill on which there has not been a public hearing. The effect would be to remove that provision until its rationale had been tested in public.
The number of these special-interest earmarks has exploded in the past decade. Knocking them out would not only save billions but would eliminate opportunities for lobbyists to procure favors in return for the campaign funds they raise.
Scott Libby, a Democratic expert on Congress, told me he was "sympathetic with the idea," because it would put responsibility where it belongs -- on congressional committees. I also found interest among Democratic leadership aides.
The folks I contacted at the Republican-controlled House Rules Committee were more skeptical, noting that current rules specifically bar points of order based on the lack of a public hearing.
Requiring such a hearing would present practical problems, they said, when Congress wants to move quickly to pass such items as the resolution marking the death of Coretta Scott King.
But that does not strike me as a serious objection. I don't expect either idea to be adopted. But if the Republicans really wanted reform, these are steps they could endorse.