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Good Work

Correction Appended

It simply isn’t accurate to charge, as some conservative critics do, that the lobbying and ethics package on deck for passage this week is “smoke and mirrors,” “obscene” or “warm milk.” The bill contains substantial reforms that are long overdue. With a few caveats, it is good work.

Among these are requirements that Members and candidates report campaign contribution “bundling” activity by lobbyists and that lobbyists report when they have contributed $5,000 or more to a special interest coalition to influence legislation.

The bill also applies to the Senate, albeit in somewhat weaker form, the gift and travel bans imposed on House Members by a rules change in January. House Members are barred from accepting trips on corporate jets. Senators and presidential candidates will have to reimburse the provider at charter rates.

The measure also extends “revolving-door” restrictions, prohibiting Senators from lobbying colleagues for two years after leaving office and House Members and key staffers for one year. And the bill denies floor privileges to ex-Members who become lobbyists.

The main objections to the measure concern earmarks, the source of much of the scandal that has afflicted Congress in recent years —and continues to do so, as witness the FBI raid Monday on the home of Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska).

Conservative GOP Sens. Jim DeMint (S.C.) and Tom Coburn (Okla.) assert that House and Senate Democratic leaders, operating in secret, hatched a measure that allows the Senate Majority Leader and the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee to certify that all earmarks have been disclosed, rather than placing power in the hands of the Senate Parliamentarian.

It’s true enough that the bill was drafted in secret — partly because DeMint single-handedly blocked the convening of a House-Senate conference committee. But we’re persuaded that the certification system was established to make earmark disclosure more efficient. If special funding measures get hidden from view, we expect that watchdog groups will sound the alarm.

One earmark provision in the bill is too weak — the ban on Senate earmarks whose “principal beneficiaries” are a Senator or members of his family. On its face, the provision will permit self-dealing if other parties also benefit.

Implementation and enforcement of the provision depend on the Senate Ethics Committee adopting a policy similar to that in the House, where Members are required to certify that they have no financial stake in an earmark they sponsor.

Another weakness is that the bill denies Congressional pensions to Members convicted of 11 crimes, including bribery and perjury, not to offenses such as income tax evasion, wire fraud or making threats to secure a campaign contribution.

The ethics measure was panned as “a glass of warm milk” that “doesn’t do anything” by House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio). But Boehner can only wish that his party had adopted the package before 2006, before Republicans lost their majority.

Correction: August 1, 2007
The editorial incorrectly stated the number of offenses for which Congressional pensions can be denied under the bill.

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