The House of Representatives may not always fulfill its claim to bethe "people's body," but it's a fine specimen of human nature. Eachtime a new coterie of politicians arrives, earnestly carrying thebanner of reform, it soon finds itself succumbing to the grubbierseductions of the place. Among the K Street corporate mouthpieces,you'll find plenty of erstwhile Watergate Babies and RepublicanRevolutionaries. And it's not just idealists who
fall. Every time a political party indulges the temptations thataccompany majority power, the electorate predictably boots it backto the perkimpoverished minority.
Democrats are well-aware of the price of abandoned reform. When BillClinton arrived in 1992, it was on a platform of "stopping therevolving door ..., limiting special interests, and reformingcampaign finance." But, during his first two years, Tom Foley andDick Gephardt snuffed these proposals. Foley also tried to deflectattention from the Democrats' illicit use of the House Post Officeand Bank. Then came November 1994, and you know how that storygoes.
A large chunk of the new Democratic House leadership lived throughthis tumble. It is a mystery, therefore, why they would project theimage they have this last month. After House Speaker-elect NancyPelosi campaigned on ethics, she tried to install Jack Murtha--whoeloquently described political reform as "total crap"--as majorityleader. Then she flirted with anointing the impeached federal judgeAlcee Hastings chairman of the Intelligence Committee.
To the Democrats' great credit, they passed over Murtha and pressedPelosi to forgo Hastings. And, hopefully, these early bruises willhave drummed in a lesson: The House is riddled with parochialinterests and gigantic egos--all conspiring to buck reform. Topreserve the new majority, Democrats will have to forgetinstitutional interests and, in an important sense, crush them.
When Congress returns in January, it will take up reforms backed byPelosi. These will include banning gifts and travel paid bylobbyists, forcing lobbyists to fully disclose their activities,and requiring members to identify some "earmarked" provisions inbudget proposals. But these worthy measures hardly address the rootcauses of House corruption. They are palliatives, not cures.
Any truly serious reform would begin by lessening the opacity of thelegislative process. Under current rules, House and Senate membersfrom the Appropriations Committees can insert obscurely wordedmeasures in the federal budget without debate--indeed, withoutother members even aware of them. These "earmarks" then become partof the final conference report that the House and Senate votes upor down.
Pelosi's proposal would require that members disclose when anearmark they insert is designed to benefit their home district orstate. But the bulk of the earmarks at the center of recentscandals were aimed at companies and groups that had no particularconnection to the legislators' home base; in return, membersreceived campaign contributions, favors, and gifts. Pelosi'sproposal would, in effect, expose the most benign aspect ofearmarks--a research grant, say, to the local university--butexempt the most malignant.
Another cause of corruption is Congress's failure to police itself.The House Ethics Committee gave a pass to Jack Abramoff and hisclients. Dennis Hastert tried to block the Ethics Committee frominvestigating former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay. And, whenDemocrats controlled Congress, they tried to protect their own.What's needed, as Barack Obama has proposed, is an independentethics commission with broad investigative power. But many topDemocrats have resisted the idea.
Then there's the persistent perniciousness of the campaign financesystem, which enables lobbyists to exchange contributions forlegislative favors. The only way to solve this is by replacingprivate money with public money. Earlier this year, RepresentativesBarney Frank and David Obey introduced a proposal for publicfinancing of congressional campaigns. But Pelosi hasn't includedany campaign finance reforms in her package.
Of course, an ambitious program like this raises all sorts of trickylogistical questions. And it's hard to blame Pelosi for wanting tosteer clear of them on her maiden voyage. But there is no excusefor the failure to crack down hard on earmarks or the failure toestablish an independent ethics commission. There are eerie echoesof Foley and Gephardt in these early decisions. But, as thepre-Gingrich Democrats can attest, life in the majority with fewerperks beats the alternative.