Last January Representative Nancy Pelosi, Senator Harry Reid and other Democratic legislators unveiled a package grandly titled the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act. The bill–inspired by the Tom DeLay/Jack Abramoff scandals–would ban lobbyists from providing gifts and travel to Representatives, tighten rules on former legislators who become lobbyists, prohibit lawmakers from flying on corporate jets for official travel (though not for campaign trips) and compel wider disclosure of lobbying activities. It would also open House-Senate conferences to the public, improve aspects of government contracting and reform earmarking, the process by which lawmakers slip pet projects into spending measures. The bill, of course, was not embraced by House Republican leaders, who failed to make good on their promise to enact reform legislation.
Now Pelosi will have her chance. She has vowed to pass a new version of the bill as soon as she becomes House Speaker in January. She has the power to implement some reforms by revising House rules with a majority vote. (In the Senate, a two-thirds vote is needed to rewrite the rules.) With exit polls showing that voters cared a great deal about Congressional corruption, Pelosi and the Democratic leadership of the Senate have an opportunity–yes, even a mandate–to reform a Congress tainted by scandals on both sides of the aisle. And that is why Pelosi should reach beyond her own bill. (Pelosi’s clean-up-Congress campaign took a hit when she backed Jack Murtha for majority leader; Murtha has been accused of ethical lapses including steering military contracts to firms represented by his brother and a former aide.)
The legislation Pelosi and Reid have pushed calls for the creation of an Office of Public Integrity to monitor lobbyists’ filings. But this new entity would not review the conduct of legislators. That’s a problem. The ethics committees of the House and Senate have long been bogged down by partisan wrangling and unable to engage in the necessary self-policing. And the House Ethics Committee no longer accepts complaints filed by outside groups, as it once did. (The Senate does accept such complaints–then doesn’t act on them.) Asking lawmakers to investigate fellow party members in this politically divided era is expecting too much. Congress needs an independent investigator, as proposed by Representative Martin Meehan, a Democrat, and Representative Chris Shays, a Republican. Pelosi should include such a reform in her bill. Rules applying to lobbyists ought to be tightened. But lobbyists are only junior partners in Washington’s institutional corruption; the senior partners are the legislators.
The reforms Pelosi and Reid are advocating fall into the good-first-steps category. Preventing lobbyists from plying legislators and staffers with meals and tickets to sports events is worthwhile–as is slowing down that ever-spinning revolving door between Capitol Hill offices and K Street suites. But let’s be real: The mother’s milk of Washington politics is not a lunchtime martini. What truly matters are the envelopes stuffed with thousands of dollars in campaign contributions. And there’s nothing in the proposed legislation or rules changes that speaks to that.
Changing rules governing how lobbyists interact with legislators would be a notable first accomplishment for the Democrats. But the seriousness of that endeavor will be judged by what they do about the fundamental flaw in the system: the dependence of politicians on special-interest cash. Pelosi has supported public financing for Congressional campaigns. She will not be able to enact such a major reform on Day One. But as she implements initial reforms, she can declare they are merely preliminary moves and that much larger–and more significant–reform lies ahead.