Democrats’ Ethics Proposals Not So Impressive

The Democrats said they were going to clean out Washington and make Congress more ethical. Now that the Dems are in charge of Congress, they’ve proposed their ethics rules, and they leave a lot to be desired. In fact, some states have implemented ethics rules that are far stricter than the Democrats’:

The Democrats taking over the U.S. Congress this week are promising sweeping changes to ethics and lobbying laws, pledging to clean up after a spate of corruption scandals under Republican rules.

So far, however, their proposals are not as comprehensive or far-reaching as changes already adopted by many states.

Democrats in both the House of Representatives and the Senate are proposing new restrictions on gifts, meals or trips paid for by lobbyists. They say they plan for the first time to require lawmakers to disclose their sponsorship of the pet items known as earmarks that they insert into major spending bills.

Meanwhile, several states, responding to the national scandals as well as their own imbroglios, have already adopted more sweeping gift and travel bans, broader measures to end the central role of lobbyists or government contractors in financing campaigns, and new forms of public campaign financing aimed at reducing lawmakers’ dependence on big donors.

To enforce their rules, more than half of the states have also created independent ethics watchdogs, outside the control of the lawmakers they police — something members of Congress have so far resisted.

John Hurson, a former member of the Maryland General Assembly and president of the National Council of State Legislatures, remembers marveling at the goings-on just a few miles away in the U.S. Capitol.

While he was in his state legislature, he was barred from letting a lobbyist buy him a cup of coffee under rules enforced by the Maryland Ethics Commission. At the same time, members of Congress were flying across the country for golf trips with lobbyists and enlisting them as major fund-raisers.

“It was amusing in a sad kind of way,” said Hurson, who now works as a Washington lobbyist himself, for a cosmetics industry trade group. “At the state level in Maryland a lobbyist can’t even have his name on a campaign flier. And at the federal level some of these guys are basically running campaigns.”

Which is why we not only need ethics reform, but also earmark reform so we can eliminate the kickbacks that members of Congress provide back to the lobbyists. It’s hard to tell what the Democrats will do. They fought against earmark identification when the Republicans were in charge.

Boehner wrote that on some issues, Democrats such as new House Speaker Nancy Pelosi “have hinted at a bait-and-switch. Take earmark reform, for example. In September, when House Republicans fought successfully for adoption of earmark reforms requiring all earmark sponsors to be identified, Ms. Pelosi called the Republican reform a ‘sham.’

“Yet just days after the 2006 election, USA Today reported that Ms. Pelosi had decided ‘her first agenda item after being elected House speaker will be a vote to require sponsors of earmarks to be identified.’ And days later, the New York Times reported House Democrats may actually propose earmark rules that retreat from those adopted by the House under Republican leadership this year.”

Democrats retreating from earmark reform? I’m shocked, shocked!

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