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Monday, December 22, 2014
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Published: Wednesday, 8/8/2007

Congress cleans up its act

IT WOULD be an unexpected triumph of hope over reality if the ethics legislation passed by Congress last week lives up to its title: the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act. But at least there's no reason to think President Bush will veto it.

Ethics reform became a high priority for Democrats this session as a result of the litany of members - most but not all of them Republicans - involved in shady doings in the past few years.

There also was a perception that voters' reactions to corruption in Washington played a role in the GOP losing its majority to the Democrats in the 2006 elections. Two Republicans, former Reps. Randy Cunningham of California and Bob Ney of Ohio, are serving prison terms.

Under the new measure, lawmakers will face tougher reporting rules on the bundling of campaign contributions from lobbyists; a ban on accepting gifts, meals, and travel from lobbyists; curbs on the abuse of earmarks, which have become too easy a way for lawmakers to tuck pet projects into bills unscrutinized, and a two-year "cooling off" period before senators may become lobbyists after leaving office. For House members it remains one year, an unfortunate inconsistency.

Names of donors who give lawmakers more than $15,000 in a six-month period through bundling of individual donations must now be made public. And senators must pay full charter rates for private air travel; House members must travel commercial.

Assuming President Bush signs the new law, it will introduce well-deserved sunshine to hitherto dark and private corners of Capitol Hill. It is long overdue. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Democrat of California, says it provides "transparency, disclosure, and accountability."

And it also has flaws. For instance, enforcement of the earmarks provision is left to appropriations committee chairmen and congressional leaders, a fox-guarding-the-henhouse approach.

No doubt lobbyists and politicians already are paging through the legislation, looking for ways to get around the reforms to pursue their interests on Capitol Hill. This is probably inevitable, but it underlines sharply the need for the media, good government advocates, and, especially, voters to be vigilant that both the letter and the spirit of the new law are respected.

It's a pity it was needed, but the law is certainly a change for the better.



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