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Ethical spectacle

January 19, 2006

A SENSE OF PANIC IS NOT OFTEN helpful on Capitol Hill. But if the panic is over the need to shore up congressional ethics in the aftermath of a major scandal, then it just may be a good thing. The spectacle of Republicans and Democrats in both chambers of Congress scrambling to outdo each other with their competing reform proposals leads us to be more optimistic that some meaningful change, courtesy of Jack Abramoff, could happen in how lawmakers interact with private lobbyists.

House Republicans are clearly compromised, and Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and Rep. David Dreier (R-San Dimas), who is leading the party's House cleanup crew, are off to a promising start. Their proposal to ban privately funded travel is a sign that they appreciate the severity of the situation. Boondoggles masquerading as "fact-finding" trips featured prominently in Abramoff's wooing of legislators and are a long-running outrage.

If members of Congress need to travel to perform their duties, they should appropriate themselves the money to do just that. Maybe they can even take a lesson from a profession that ranks a few rungs higher, according to opinion polls, in terms of honesty: Journalistic ethics preclude Los Angeles Times reporters from taking money from private industry to fly across the country to do their reporting. Surely members of Congress can live up to the same standards that we abide by.

By itself, the practice of lobbying -- of competing interests advocating their positions on Capitol Hill -- is an honorable and necessary democratic exercise. What's poisonous is the pervasive and corrupt culture of lobbyists offering up golf weekends, lavish dinners, Super Bowl tickets and ready-made campaign fundraisers to sweeten whatever substantive arguments they are peddling.

Dreier is pushing to eliminate privately funded travel, lengthen the period of time before former members can lobby the House, tighten gift rules and limit privileges afforded former members of Congress. All this would be helpful in alleviating the inequality of access between insiders (often professional lobbyists) and outsiders (usually constituents) to representatives. A good proposal on the Senate side would ban lobbying by members' relatives.

It's a good start, though the battle is yet to be fully joined. And, at some point, Congress will have to examine ways of breaking the nexus between lobbying and campaign fundraising before members can proclaim themselves truly cleansed. It's a difficult subject because incumbents rely on lobbyists to replenish their war chests, and efforts to curb campaign donations can trigger 1st Amendment concerns.

But it's a part of the larger problem that cannot be overlooked. Even if a private lobbyist cannot arrange to have Joe Congressman play golf in Scotland or run a tab at his favorite steakhouse, Joe might still feel beholden if the lobbyist can throw him a fundraiser that nets him hundreds of thousands of dollars.

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