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Get serious on ethics

The new Congress should take a tough approach to policing behavior. Rules must be unforgiving.

January 01, 2007

CONGRESS LIMPED out of town last month without having done much about the "culture of corruption" that alternately sustains or torments members of Congress, depending on whether they're in the majority. When Congress returns this week, say Speaker-designate Nancy Pelosi and incoming Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, that culture will change.

Which is exactly what you'd expect them to say. But voters' patience is limited, and the new Democratic-controlled Congress needs to move quickly to redefine the relationship between legislators and lobbyists.

In 2006, both the Senate and the House took halting steps in the direction of reform, separately approving legislation to require electronic filing of lobbying reports, greater disclosure by government employees-turned-lobbyists, disclosure by members of Congress and senior staff of potentially compromising job negotiations and some restrictions on privately funded travel.

The new Congress should revisit these and other ethics issues. When in doubt, Congress should adopt the most restrictive approach to policing members' behavior, which also will be the approach most likely to inspire public confidence. If the new Congress wants to show it is serious about ethics, it could adopt some rules to prove it:

* No personal gifts or meals for members of Congress paid for by lobbyists. This bright-line rule is preferable to attempts to put a dollar figure on how generous a gift or meal must be to raise concerns about ethics.

* No free or reduced-cost travel or lodging provided by businesses or nonprofits that lobby Congress. If a representative or senator flies on a corporate jet, he or she must pay the full charter cost, not merely the cost of a first-class ticket. Even then, registered lobbyists may not be present. Privately funded travel must be approved in advance by the ethics committees, and details of travel -- including any recreational opportunities -- should be made available on the Internet.

* A slower "revolving door." The cooling-off period during which former members and senior staff may not lobby Congress should be a minimum of two years for both the House and the Senate instead of the current one year.

* A new Office of Public Integrity to monitor compliance with lobbying rules and report violations to the Senate and House leadership and ethics committees. The office also would report violations of law to federal prosecutors. Pelosi reportedly has sounded out her Republican counterpart about studying whether such an office should be set up, with recommendations due by spring. That's needlessly sluggish.

* No congressional pensions for felons. After the resignation of Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R-Rancho Santa Fe), who pleaded guilty to bribery charges, House Republicans proposed that future members convicted of serious crimes lose their pensions. Such a rule, which many states have adopted, would be a powerful deterrent against wrongdoing.

Obviously, the mere existence of rules won't guarantee that members of Congress will act ethically. Just last month, the House Ethics Committee faulted Republican members and staff for being "willfully ignorant" of former Rep. Mark Foley's (R-Fla.) improper advances to teenage pages. Yet the panel concluded that there was no violation of House rules -- not even of a rule requiring that members and staff "act at all times in a manner that reflects creditably on the House."

Still, rules -- and, where necessary, criminal laws -- establish a baseline for behavior, especially when they're specific enough. Raising that baseline should be among the first orders of business for the new Congress.

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