First, Ethics Reform

Friday, November 10, 2006

ONE OF THE loudest messages from Tuesday's elections was disgust with the way Washington does business. In exit polls, 42 percent of voters said corruption and scandals in government were extremely important in their decisions -- a greater share than for the war in Iraq, terrorism or the economy. House Democrats have vowed to quickly adopt new ethics rules; their package is good but could be improved. Senate Democrats, who, after yesterday's gracious concession by Sen. George Allen (R-Va.), will control the chamber, say they too have heard the voters' demand for change.

The House Democrats' package, which incoming speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) promised to enact during the Democrats' first day in control, would prohibit lawmakers and their staff from accepting meals, gifts and trips paid for by lobbyists or organizations that employ lobbyists. To end a Jack Abramoff practice -- the use of nonprofit groups to disguise trips paid for by lobbyists or other interested parties -- the Democrats' measure would require advance approval for other travel. Lawmakers would be barred from riding corporate jets for official travel but could still do so on campaign and political trips, a loophole that ought to be plugged. Lawmakers and staffers would have to wait two years, not one as currently, to lobby their former colleagues.

The weakest link in the House package concerns enforcement. A new Office of Public Integrity would review lobbyists' filings, but lawmakers would remain under the jurisdiction of the House ethics committee, whose sorry performance this year argues for a system less susceptible to partisan stalemate. Reps. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.) and Martin T. Meehan (D-Mass.) have proposed an independent investigator who would provide greater scrutiny and accountability while leaving ultimate authority to elected officials. The new House leaders should incorporate that plan into their package.

Changing Senate rules is more complicated because doing so requires a two-thirds vote, but the office of the incoming majority leader, Sen. Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.), said yesterday that he is also committed to swift action. Only the House Democrats promised before the election to make ethics a priority, but if the election results helped refocus Senate Democrats on ethics issues, that's all to the good. One major shortcoming in the proposal endorsed by Senate Democrats this year involved the use of corporate aircraft. Simply requiring that lawmakers disclose their acceptance of such cut-rate flights isn't adequate; if they fly on corporate jets, they ought to be required to pay market rates.

Then, after changing ethics rules, the new Congress needs to pass the lobbying reform legislation that its predecessor neglected to its peril.

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