IT'S been quite some time since we could use the words "Congress" and "ethics" in the same sentence without being accused of creating an oxymoron - or giving oxymorons a bad name.
Even so, the package of ethics reforms passed first by the new Democratic majority in the House, and now by the Senate after some initial Republican reluctance, is a promising start toward cleaning up the moral cesspool lapping at Capitol Hill.
Rules are only rules, of course, and by themselves they cannot put an end to the corruption that has become endemic in Washington, including the Abramoff lobbying scandal, bribery convictions of two House members, and other improprieties.
As one senator, Robert Bennett, Republican of Utah, put it, "We can write all the rules we want, but if a member of this body has the instincts of corruption in his soul, he will find a way around the rules."
Still, tough rules are necessary and Democrats in the House put an exclamation point on their return to power early this month by adopting sweeping changes to its rules, strengthening provisions on ethics and lobbying.
However, in the Senate, which adopts its ethics rules in the form of legislation, 45 Republican members banded together last Wednesday night to tweak the narrow Democratic majority and temporarily sidetrack a similar reform effort. That ploy fell apart, however, and the Senate eventually passed the bill overwhelmingly on Thursday.
Both the House rules and the Senate bill, which still must be approved by the House, require disclosure of "earmarks" - typically major policy changes or huge sums of money for projects benefiting special interests - inserted in legislation without notice or debate.
Another provision might be called the "Mike Oxley Rule" in acknowledgement of the former representative from Findlay, who became one of Congress's premier special-interest junketeers before declining to run for re-election last year for a 13th term.
That rule bans payment by lobbyists and lobbying groups for most travel, gifts, meals, and entertainment for lawmakers. While nonlobbying groups still can pay for such trips in connection with official business, it must be approved in advance by the ethics committee and promptly disclosed.
In addition, members are prohibited from flying on corporate aircraft at first-class rates, a common perk. Now they'll have to pay higher charter rates.
More frequent reporting of lobbying expenditures is required, along with disclosure of so-called "bundling" of campaign donations funneled to lawmakers by lobbyists from their friends, relatives, and clients. And pensions would be denied to members convicted of serious ethics offenses.
Restoring some modicum of ethical conduct should not be a partisan issue. Republicans have taken much of the heat, and rightfully so, because they've been in power for the past 12 years and a long list of egregious abuses have taken place on their watch. But it doesn't take much of a memory to recall similar transgressions by Democrats when they were last in power.
Nonetheless, the new Congress deserves credit for putting ethics reform at the top of the priority list in 2007. The real test, of course, will be whether it's still there in 2008, and beyond.
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