Real Ethics Reform

Saturday, January 20, 2007

THIS BEING a season for celebrating Shakespeare in Washington, perhaps the best way to describe the ethics and lobbying bill that passed the Senate on Thursday is to quote the Bard: "All's Well That Ends Well." The final package is the strongest ethics legislation to emerge from Congress yet. Like the rules changes the House adopted this month, it would bar lawmakers from taking free gifts, meals and entertainment. No longer would lobbyists and private interests be allowed to throw lavish parties honoring lawmakers at political conventions. Travel paid for by private interests would be dramatically curtailed. Lawmakers' cut-rate corporate jet flights would be grounded. The revolving door would be slowed, with lawmakers having to wait two years, not the current one year, before lobbying their former colleagues.

The bill would bring far more transparency to money in Washington: how lawmakers choose to spend it and how it is deployed to influence them. On the spending side, the measure calls for disclosure of an array of earmarked pet projects. On the influence side, lobbyists would not only have to report their own campaign contributions, but they also would have to list the fundraisers they held and the "bundled" contributions they arranged or collected for lawmakers, the real source of their power.

We've had our doubts about the commitment of Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) to a strong ethics bill; we've had our qualms about his conduct. But Mr. Reid, along with Sens. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.) and Barack Obama (D-Ill.), deserves credit for assembling and passing this package. Whether Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) was trying to sabotage passage of the bill when he temporarily blocked a move to end debate, as reformers contend, or whether he was simply trying to demonstrate to the new majority that Senate Republicans can't be muscled aside, what matters is that the measure passed 96 to 2.

As always, there are provisions we wish had been included. It was disappointing that senators voted to strip from the bill a requirement that lobbyists disclose the costs of grass-roots efforts to influence lawmakers. It was unfortunate that backers of an independent Office of Public Integrity to beef up enforcement of ethics rules insisted on a vote on their measure, which lost even more resoundingly than it did last year. As the House studies how to improve the current, inadequate enforcement system, we hope the Senate vote won't be the chamber's last word on some kind of independent enforcement mechanism.

The focus now moves to the House, which adopted new ethics rules but still needs to move on the lobbying changes. Following that, it's important that the resulting conference be held quickly to meld the two bills, not used as a behind-the-scenes vehicle to make quiet but crippling changes.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company