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Lax Ethics Enforcement Created Culture of Carelessness in House

A story on Illinois delegation travel in the Chicago Tribune over the weekend noted that Democratic Reps. Bobby Rush and Luis Gutierrez had not filed a single trip report to Congress since 2000, despite taking six and 25 trips respectively. “You brought it to our attention,” Tasha Harris, a Rush spokeswoman, told the Tribune. “We didn’t know we had to file.” [IMGCAP(1)]

That is a bit like failing to file tax returns for five years, then telling the IRS that you didn’t know you had to file. But it’s a situation that many lawmakers and aides now find themselves in. Even more typical, I suspect, is evidence of blatant disregard for the rules and standards set by the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct.

What is going on here? Here’s one thesis. Imagine that it is clear to residents of the District of Columbia that police will not write tickets for traffic violations, and that there will be no radar and no cameras. What will happen? Over time, of course, everyone will speed and there will be lots more red lights run. But what will also happen is that drivers will come to forget the traffic laws — the rules about when you can enter traffic circles and when you can turn right on red — because they have lost a major incentive to remember them.

For a decade, the House of Representatives operated under an “ethics truce,” instituted after the ethics attacks on Speakers Jim Wright (D-Texas) and Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.). It involved a change in the rules that prevented any outside groups or individuals from bringing allegations of ethics violations to the ethics committee, combined with intense pressure on Members of both parties to make sure that none of them brought any charges against colleagues to the panel.

The result was a largely moribund ethics process, with occasional spasms of activity when the public embarrassment from news stories about an ethical problem got too great. The problem was not the members of the ethics panel — former Rep. Jim Hansen (R-Utah) and current Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.) served with great integrity — but rather the overarching attitude that came to grip the House.

Every Member and every staffer knew that the ethics process was neither aggressive nor vigilant. So a lot of people became careless. It was easy not to file travel reports, or to file them without thinking about who paid for the trips. It was also easy to file reports indicating that nonprofits paid for the trips, without ever checking on whether the nonprofits actually acted as launderers for lobbyists or other special interests.

Many travel reports claimed reimbursement from the National Center for Public Policy Research, which, as Franklin Foer notes in a devastating New Republic article, acted as a regular conduit for money from Jack Abramoff while receiving huge contributions from Abramoff clients and paying huge sums out to Abramoff’s charity and his lobbying pals. No one questioned any of this, because they didn’t feel they had to.

Many Members and staff of both parties will be caught in this embarrassment. Most will be guilty of minor things. A smaller number will be serial violators, some with dozens of shady travel experiences. A few Members, I suspect, will be more like ringleaders in an active effort to get around the rules, so that they could have a jolly good time with lobbyists — the appearance, or the reality, of trading legislative favors in exchange for lavish trips, not to mention generous campaign contributions and the willingness to hire and coddle the Member’s former staffers. There is enough rotten here that every part of it should be pursued.

Maybe now we will once again have an active ethics committee and ethics process since Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) and their acolytes have been forced to reverse course on their over-the-top ethics rules changes. But the fact that their purge of the committee membership stands that only Members can bring charges against other Members and that to do so risks sanctions by the ethics committee itself, makes that outcome no sure thing. Regardless, the revelations now emerging about travel and the role of lobbyists makes it clear that serious reform is needed.

The good news is that a common-sense reform package is available, courtesy of Reps. Marty Meehan (D-Mass.) and Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.). Although the embattled DeLay dismissed their effort as another part of the leftist plot to get him, any objective examination of their proposal makes it clear that this is a straightforward attempt to tighten the rules, appropriately, without making travel by Members and staff impossible or unduly handicapping lobbyists. (Full disclosure: I was one of a group of outsiders who offered input on the package.)

This is not some panicked effort to get the public and journalistic monkey off Congress’ back, nor a cursory effort to set a marker out there. Meehan and Emanuel have four goals: enhancing lobbying disclosure, curbing excesses in travel by Members and staff, re-evaluating and toughening the revolving door rules, and making sure that appropriate penalties exist for miscreants and that active oversight of the process will be able to adjust the ethics regime over time.

Meehan and Emanuel take areas of lobbying, including grass-roots lobbying, and make them newly subject to disclosure. In fact, they would make the disclosure much more meaningful by having it occur within a searchable, downloadable, publicly accessible Web site, with hyperlinks so that watchdogs can tease out the interrelationships.

They also make sensible changes on travel, avoiding an outright ban on outside groups funding trips, but making sure that there are limits in what they can do. Such groups would be made accountable for the funding — and the Members would be made more accountable to check it out — while also putting some limits on allowable expenses.

No plan will create a perfect balance or thwart efforts entirely by genuine rascals to game the system. But this proposal would go a long way toward making an imperfect process better, and the Senate, which is far from pristine in this area, also needs to examine and enact similar reforms. Rep. Bob Ney (R-Ohio) has indicated an openness to these kinds of changes, and a willingness to move on them quickly. I hope he means it — and I hope that the Speaker understands the desirability, for his Caucus and for the Congress, of supporting reforms like these.

Norman Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

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