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No One Is Above The Rules Of the House

One of the things I like best about Washington’s inner workings is how fast lawmakers move on so-called “national crises” such as steroid abuse in baseball and Janet Jackson’s “wardrobe malfunction” at the Super Bowl. But what if the crisis were under the Capitol dome, right before their very eyes? What would Congress do then?

[IMGCAP(1)]We’ll soon find out. What began as a few isolated reports about abuse of the rules governing privately paid travel by Members and staff has blossomed along with Washington’s cherry trees into a full-blown spectacle that may blacken the names of members of both parties before the summer ends.

What’s worse than the political hurt this mess does to individual lawmakers, however, is the damage it does to Congress and the democratic process itself. Members come and go, but Congress as an institution lives on. Democracies only work when ordinary citizens feel they have a stake in the outcome — that their views matter and that their vote counts.

Like the soft-money system and the House Bank scandal, this travel debacle can only feed the public’s view that the policies coming out of Washington don’t reflect real public choices and values. Instead, our laws appear to embody the narrow priorities of a handful of wealthy people and special interests who are rich enough to buy any outcome they want. And if this continues, more Americans will simply tune out of self-governance, unwilling — understandably — to play a game rigged from the start.

Until last week, I thought for sure the Members would continue to play hide and seek. But two great lawmakers, Reps. Marty Meehan (D-Mass.) and Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.), proposed to their colleagues a sweeping plan that would go a long way toward cleaning up the travel mess. Members of both parties should seize this opportunity, heading off an ethics nightmare and making a fresh start.

The bill would address the core problem — lax travel rules that have allowed lobbyists and special interests to curry favor with Members and their staffs by paying for lavish travel and the associated perks, all while hiding their involvement from the public. (Note: As a former House staff member, I took advantage of some Congressional trips, but I rarely accepted travel offered by special interest groups.)

The current rules forbid lobbyists or registered foreign agents from paying for official travel. This basic, narrow restriction has been broken time and again, as we’ve learned from the almost-daily revelations about Jack Abramoff’s ways and means. But more to the point, the rule has simply spawned the creation of nonprofit “educational organizations” whose sole purpose has been to act as “laundromats” through which lobbyists and other interests pay for lavish official travel, effectively rendering the travel restrictions meaningless.

Among other reforms, the Meehan-Emanuel bill would require that itineraries and expenses for Members and staff travel be fully disclosed. Any organization sponsoring a trip would have to certify — under threat of a possible fine of up to $100,000 — that no lobbyist, company or special interest is indirectly paying for it.

Instead of providing grist for Washington’s obligatory summer scandal, these travel revelations might ultimately serve as a blessing in disguise. They can be what management consultants call an action-forcing event: a problem that forces us to do the right thing when we otherwise might not.

Democrats need to take the lead on this — both because it’s the right thing to do and because we’re supposed to be the party of the ordinary citizen, not the special interests. We should push these reforms as hard as we can, regardless of whether some Democrats get a little singed in the fire. And some may. One Democratic Member who is a friend of mine recently learned that Mr. Abramoff paid some of the expenses for an official trip he took, rather than the nonprofit that he had been told was the trip’s sponsor.

But Republicans also have ample reason to get on board. This political moment has a remarkable parallel: the House Bank scandal of the early 1990s, in which a tidal wave of public disgust over Congressional abuse of special privileges served to unseat many seemingly entrenched incumbents.

Now, the Republican majority has as its leader a poster boy for bad behavior, House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (Texas). And their hard work to wreck longstanding checks and balances, to neuter the ethics regime and to pass laws grossly tilted in favor of the wealthy are putting their majority status in serious jeopardy.

It took Democrats 40 years to put themselves into the kind of deep water the Republicans have sunk to in just a decade. By supporting the Lobbying and Ethics Reform Act of 2005, Members from both sides of the aisle can now get squarely on the side of reform without seeking partisan advantage.

No one is above the rules. It’s time Congress learns that lesson and leads by example.

Donna L. Brazile, the campaign manager for Democratic presidential nominee Al Gore in 2000, runs her own grassroots political consulting firm.

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