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Ethics are more than just rules
An editorial / By Dale McFeatters
Scripps Howard News Service


January 20, 2006

Congressional Republicans and Democrats have offered dueling ethics-reform proposals - in the Republicans' case, to try to stem the Abramoff lobbying scandal; and in the Democrats' case, to exploit it.

First, the Republicans had to clear up a bit of awkwardness, replacing Rep. Bob Ney, R-Ohio, who could be the next shoe to drop in the Abramoff probe, as chairman of the House committee that will handle the reforms.

Many of the proposals are worthwhile and - temporarily - could improve the ethical climate in Congress. Some of those include: a ban on "dead of night" insertions in bills; a waiting period between the time a bill emerges from committee and the final vote, to give members a chance to read what they're voting on; banning former members who have become lobbyists from the House floor; and timely, accessible disclosure of trips aboard private aircraft.

Others are more problematic, like tightening the limits on free travel, meals and gifts. These might clean up the appearance of unseemly coziness with special interests, but they do not address the much more critical issue of political fund-raising events.

And other proposals - like extending from one year to two the time a lawmaker has to wait to register as a lobbyist after leaving - just kick the can down the road.

We would add a ban on "earmarks," special-interest spending provisions added to bills outside the normal appropriations process, often in "dead of night" fashion. These earmarks added up to over $27 billion in spending - on items like the infamous "bridge to nowhere" - in the last fiscal year, according to a watchdog group.

We would also urge a return to "paygo" rules, where new spending and new tax cuts must be offset with spending cuts and tax increases elsewhere in the budget. One reason Congress is in this ethical fix is its wide-open approach to federal spending.

And, too, we would like the House ethics committee, emasculated by the Republican leadership, restored to a position of clout and prestige, with the power to initiate investigations and to accept complaints from any source.

None of these will work for very long without a change in the culture of Congress so that the members will not tolerate shady practices. The members are too protective of each other and too loath to speak out, as epitomized by the axiom "to get along, go along." The "K Street Project" - to get legislation passed, hire Republicans and raise money for GOP candidates - had sleaze written all over it, but there was no institutional, and little individual, denunciation of what was clearly a "pay to play" scheme.


Contact Dale McFeatters at McFeattersD(at)
Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service,

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