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Setting the rules

The Democrats' first days of congressional control have been promising but insubstantial.

January 07, 2007

AFTER 12 YEARS in the political wilderness, Democrats in the House of Representatives can be excused the hoopla and hokeyness that marked their first day of control. But, to the new leadership's credit, the showmanship was accompanied by something significant: the approval of tough ethics rules that will do a lot to curb the appearance and reality of the "culture of corruption" the Democrats campaigned against.

The new ethics rules approved expeditiously Thursday -- "railroaded," if you like -- set a high bar for similar self-policing by the Senate. That chamber also came under Democratic control, albeit in a more subdued fashion reflecting the Democrats' one-vote majority and the charisma gap between Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco), the first woman to hold that position.

The House essentially enacted the wish list of advocates of reform (including us), burnishing Pelosi's promise to preside over "the most honest, the most open and the most ethical Congress in history." Some burnishing was necessary after Pelosi unsuccessfully attempted to install Rep. John P. Murtha (D-Pa.), a Beltway insider who was investigated but not charged in the Abscam scandal, as majority leader.

Under the rules adopted Thursday, representatives may not accept gifts or travel from lobbyists or agents of foreign governments, and -- to prevent a repetition of the Republicans' notorious "K Street Project" -- members are prohibited from retaliating against firms that dare to employ lobbyists from the opposite party. On Friday, the House advanced the ethics agenda further by making it easier to monitor special-interest "earmarks" inserted in legislation.

More remains to be done. Reformers inside and outside Congress must continue to press for the creation of a new ethics watchdog in each chamber. House Democrats say they will take up that initiative in the coming weeks, and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who now chairs the Rules Committee, has indicated that she would hold hearings on the idea.

Important as they are, the new ethics rules deal with process, not substance. The public receives regular reminders, most recently from Jack Abramoff, of how the legislative process can be corrupted by narrow special interests. But even in a transparent process unsullied by bribery or self-dealing, policy choices must be made. They include relatively easy ones, such as raising the minimum wage, and harder ones, such as whether to allow Republican tax cuts to expire and how to respond to President Bush's Iraq policy.

On some of those issues, as Pelosi knows, Democrats are not united. All the more reason for them to focus first on something on which they (and their sadder-but-wiser Republican colleagues) agree: the need for an improvement in their own behavior.

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