Integrity Politics

Saturday, February 25, 2006

TIGHTENING lobbying rules without doing something to improve enforcement would be like overhauling the tax code while abolishing the Internal Revenue Service. The existing rules are too permissive and don't require enough disclosure; more is needed. But such changes need to be coupled with a better system to police compliance.

The best idea so far, in legislation proposed by Reps. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.) and Martin T. Meehan (D-Mass.), would create an Office of Public Integrity. This office would serve not simply as a passive repository of filings, as the current system does. Instead, it would be an independent, nonpartisan entity, on the model of the Congressional Budget Office. It would be empowered to review documents, accept outside complaints, refer matters to the Justice Department, conduct investigations and make recommendations to the House and Senate ethics committees.

This would keep members of Congress involved, as they need to be, in setting and enforcing the rules for their own conduct, but it would help energize the ethics committees, which, especially in the House, have been gridlocked by partisanship.

Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) has proposed creating an Congressional Ethics Enforcement Commission, composed of former judges and former members of Congress, to investigate complaints and determine whether a violation has occurred; the ethics committee would determine what punishment was proper. That's a bit too much outsourcing for our taste. And, as a practical matter, a commission would be a tough political sell. Still, an arrangement that melds the benefits of these two approaches -- the clout of an commission of prominent figures with the sustained attention and expertise of an inside investigator -- could be worth pursuing.

No one, though, should fall for phony enforcement of the sort peddled by Senate Democrats in their lobbying reform bill. Their measure would establish a Senate Office of Public Integrity -- but it would have authority over lobbyists' compliance with the rules, not senators'. They'd be left to the ethics committee. Public integrity, it seems, only goes so far.

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