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The New Crowd's First Test
Are Hill Democrats Serious on Ethics?

By E. J. Dionne Jr.
Tuesday, January 2, 2007

This time it's going to be different.

Whenever a new crowd displaces an old guard, the promise is always the same. The fresh managers swear they understand what the tired bunch they're replacing did wrong and vow to make all things new.

The Democrats who take power in Congress on Thursday have been given an opportunity that has not come their party's way for a half-century: They can remake their own image -- and Congress's -- and they can begin to restore public confidence in government.

While control of the Senate has flip-flopped between the parties since 1980, the House has stayed in one party's hands for long periods. Democrats controlled the House for 40 years after 1954, Republicans for the past 12. The 2006 election marked the first time since that 1954 contest that both houses switched from the Republicans to the Democrats.

This allows the new Democratic majority, in principle at least, to come in with no commitments to doing business as it was done in the immediate past.

If Democrats don't seize this rare opportunity, their party will pay for a long time. Not only will they disillusion their own supporters, but, more important, the angry centrists of the Ross Perot stripe who voted the Republicans out last year will either go back to the GOP or seek other options.

The first opportunity in the House will come on the very first day, when a package of reforms comes up for a vote. The Senate will take its own steps soon after. At stake initially are new ethics and lobbying rules. Over time House and Senate leaders will have to prove their commitment to bringing more democracy to the way Congress is run. A country that claims a mission to democracy and transparent government in the rest of the world needs to get its own institutions in order.

The new congressional leadership seems to recognize how important it is to get ethics and lobbying reform right. In the House, incoming Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer have sent members strongly worded proposals that would, among other things, ban gifts from lobbyists, lobbyist-paid travel and the use of company planes.

Congress will also consider a series of important lobbying reforms, many of them designed to strengthen inadequate disclosure requirements so the public knows who is doing what. One of my favorite ideas, from the veteran reformer Fred Wertheimer, would call upon lobbyists and lobbying organizations to disclose the earmarks they have lobbied for and the sponsors of those earmarks in the reports they are required to file with Congress.

The new Congress is already talking about requiring members to disclose their sponsorship of earmarks, those special little (or not so little) spending projects and tax breaks inserted into various bills with almost no public attention. But such disclosure does not tell citizens all they need to know, such as which lobbyists and which interest groups are pushing which special programs.

Fiscal conservatives who claim they can't stand those earmarks should rally to this idea. The best way to stop unjustified earmarks is to shed as much light as possible on their purpose and provenance.

What the Democrats are talking about sounds good. What will matter is that the provisions they pass not contain loopholes that render them much less far-reaching than they seem.

Members of Congress can legitimately ask for reasonable rules so they are not caught up unintentionally or unfairly in violations. But much will depend on the definition of "reasonable." Passing rules that don't rein in the corruption that became so obvious in the last Congress will be worse than passing nothing, because the hypocrisy will be obvious.

And any Democrats who think this anti-corruption talk is just a fad should consult a memo written two weeks after November's elections by Rep. Rahm Emanuel, the incoming chairman of the Democratic caucus and the House's shrewdest electoral tactician.

Emanuel counted eight districts the Democrats won largely because of corruption issues. The Democrats, he said, need to be the reformers they said they'd be. "Failing to deliver on this promise," he added, "would be devastating to our standing with the public, and certainly jeopardize some of our marginal seats."

President Bush briefly claimed back in 2000 to be "a reformer with results." This time, the voters who mattered in 2006 expect reform to be one of the results of the ballots they cast for Democrats.

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