The arms race on ethics reform

Both parties have proposals. One comes closer to dealing with the problems at hand.

Published January 19, 2006 5:11PM (EST)

The Republicans and the Democrats have unveiled their competing proposals for ethics reform, and now they'll play a game of "Quien es Mas Macho?" with them. It's not much of a contest: As the Washington Post reports today, the "Democratic plans go further than the Republicans' proposals."

The plan House Speaker Dennis Hastert proposed Tuesday would prohibit members of Congress from accepting free meals or travel from a lobbyist -- but not, as the Post reports, if the meals and travel come at the same moment that the lobbyist is making a contribution to the member's campaign. It's a loophole that all but swallows the rule, and it's not the only oddity in the Republicans' ideas about how to respond to the Jack Abramoff scandal. As Roll Call has reported, some in the GOP want to use lobbying reform as a vehicle for clamping down on money from 527s. While it's true that such groups help offset the Republicans' fundraising advantages, we must have missed the news stories about the Democratic members of Congress and Democratic lobbyists who have pleaded guilty in corruption schemes involving money from

The proposals Democrats described Wednesday get closer to the problems at hand. They would prohibit members of Congress from accepting any gifts from lobbyists, end the Republicans' "K Street Project" and require members to come clean when they're negotiating for jobs in the private sector. The Democrats' proposals would also end some of the worst abuses inside Congress itself. In a move to crack down on "earmarks" that are inserted into bills in the minutes before their passage, the Democrats would require that all legislation be made available to the public at least 24 hours before any vote. And in order to prevent Republicans from single-handedly rewriting legislation in House-Senate conference committees, they would require that such sessions be held in the open and with the participation of members from both parties.

While these latter reforms may be one step removed from the heart of the Abramoff scandal, Norman Ornstein and Thomas Mann argue pretty persuasively today that this sort of one-two punch is needed if Washington is really going to change. "The problem starts not with lobbyists but inside Congress," they write, detailing the ways in which Republicans in Congress have, over the last five years, routinely "violated" the "regular order" in ways that "mark a dramatic break from custom." Ornstein and Mann cite a string of abuses: roll-call votes that stretch on for hours so that Republican leaders can strong-arm members into voting their way; rules that prohibit amendments and stifle debate; and massive bills -- and earmarks in them -- that are brought to the floor without any notice, then rammed through without much debate.

As the parties squabble over their competing reform proposals, the GOP will argue -- as it already is arguing -- that Democrats are equal offenders. But Ornstein and Mann, who together have watched Congress for more than three decades, say that the problems have increased dramatically under the reign of the Republicans. "We saw similar abuses leading to similar patterns of corruption during the Democrats' majority reign," they write. "But they were neither as widespread nor as audacious as those we have seen in the past few years. The arrogance of power that was evident in Democratic lawmakers like Jack Brooks of Texas -- the 21-term Democrat who was famed for twisting the rules to get pork for his district -- is now evident in a much wider range of members and leaders, who all seem to share the attitude that because they are in charge, no one can hold them accountable."

By Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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