August 7, 2007

Ethics Bill Short On Enforcement

The Washington Post finally realizes that the new ethics bill passed by Congress has little chance of actually enforcing better standards of ethics. Their somewhat belated observation comes on page A11 of today's paper, where they note that the Democratic leadership not only didn't provide any new resources for enforcement, they put most of the onus for compliance on the lobbyists:

Government watchdogs and ethics lawyers generally agree that the bill would shed new light on the Washington influence game but wonder how those who don't play ball would be found and punished. Without an effective bureaucracy for managing the flow of new disclosures provided by the law, they say, the legislation won't mean much.

"This law will put a significant new burden on the ethics committees and the public disclosure offices in the House and Senate. They have to do more than sticking the reports in a filing cabinet," said Kenneth Gross, an ethics lawyer at the law firm Skadden, Arps.

Violations of the law would be prosecuted by the Justice Department, but "they rely on referrals," Gross said. The new legislation expands the jurisdiction of federal prosecutors beyond violations of lobbying laws to breaches of the gift ban and other provisions, imposing civil and, for the first time, criminal penalties.

Without a way to manage disclosure information, "the enforcement process will be weakened at its base," Gross said.

These enforcement issues come as a piece of the dilution of earmark reform. Instead of keeping the tough language initially included in January, the bill stripped away requirements to make earmarks searchable in bills, weakened enforcement in conference reports, and created a ridiculously narrow definition of personal benefit. Removing those and other provisions of earmark reform showed that Democratic leadership had more interest in press releases than actual reform.

Elizabeth Williamson finds more clues. The requirement to pre-approve all Congressional trips sounds like a tough review, but those trips run into the hundreds, if not thousands. How does Congress propose to do any substantive review of these junkets? The bill also requires that lobbying reports need to go online -- a step in the right direction, to be sure -- but doesn't put anyone or any entity in charge of the database.

Nancy Pelosi promised that a panel on ethics reform would return a plan to improve ethics enforcement in the House by May 1st. Three months later, the House has gone on vacation, and so has ethics enforcement, apparently. Ethics rules without enforcement mean that there will be more rule-breaking with no consequences.

The Democrats started this session going in the right direction on ethics reform. They have consistently traveled backwards ever since, and this version of "reform" may leave us worse off than before. It provides a cover for leadership to shrug off their promise to "drain the swamp" while posing as reformers.


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Comments (8)

Posted by Gary Gross | August 7, 2007 9:06 AM

We need to thank John Murtha for speaking the truth about this 'reform legislation. For once in his life, he told the truth.

Posted by amr | August 7, 2007 9:22 AM

This reminds me in part of the 1986 amnesty bill and the recently proposed one. Pass legislation and then don’t provide a method/money to enforce what was promised

Posted by Labamigo | August 7, 2007 10:03 AM

Shocked, shocked.

Posted by Angry Dumbo | August 7, 2007 10:42 AM

I think Senator Colburn said it best, the bill "not only failed to drain the swamp, but gave the alligators new rights."

Mr. President, veto this bill.

Heck, read the John Fund article I am poorly paraphrasing.

"Last week, Republican senators misread the Stevens scandal as a signal they had to back a symbolic--but in truth a sham--ethics bill. President Bush, who has the advantage of not facing voters again, has called its earmark provisions "worthless." He should veto the bill. He may be overridden, but he will do Republicans a favor by forcing them to rethink their attachment to an earmark culture that is both destructive of honest budgeting and politically dangerous because of the inherent corruption it creates."

Posted by docjim505 | August 7, 2007 12:06 PM

Um... Does anybody really believe that ANYBODY in Congress wants to have tough ethics rules and get rid of earmarks?

Corruption is the one of two things in Congress that is truly nonpartisan (the other being a grossly distorted sense of self-importance).

Posted by Carol Herman | August 7, 2007 3:05 PM

We're far from changing anything that goes on in congress. HOWEVER, we are on a path towards changes just the same.

What's happened over the past 60 years is that the bastion of congress, once the preserve of white males, underwent shifts. LBJ brought in, wholesale, the changes made by affirmative action. A FAILED POLICY.

But we've still got it.

And, it's possible people want to save some of it ahead; and not toss it all overboard.

While the way officials used to grow their own political clout, so they'd arrive at a party. And, then travel the train with them ... Has at least produced RONALD REAGAN leaving the democraps in 1962.

True. In 1964 Goldwater failed.

But if you look, Ronald Reagan, meeting the headwinds of poltiics, prevailed.

The Bush's are probably "fixing" some things that we don't even see with our eyes. But it's possible that Colin Powell, Wesley Clark and Richard Armitage, will not be back into the halls of power any time soon.

Because the Internet INFLUENCES ORDINARY PEOPLE. It's a helper in galvanizing people. Where, for instance, today, a lot of us know about all the GOP hopefulls who are running for the presidential nomination. In a sense, our individual opinions then add up. And, best of all, we're not dependent on the old media. We've found a way around them.

Congress won't clean itself up. But I do notice Hastert's been kicked out of his majority chair. And, I also notice that none of the current leaders are respected all that much. Not Lindsay Graham, who is back-peddling so fast from his remark that his constiuents are bigots. To even McCain. Then there's Trent Lott. Believe me, the guy's gotta go!

Frist? He thinks he's promised slot space as Guiliani's veep. I hope Guiliani reconsiders. It's not going to be a "walk in the park " for him, ahead, to the nomination.

One of the reasons pork plays such a role, is that ALL the leaders, in both parties, use it for their own clout.

HOW WE PICK LEADERS WILL PROBABLY COME TO A HEAD; ahead. As the Blue Dogs, elected to congress, get desperate. If you didnh't know what pee-lousy did with her rag? She pushed it into the faces of the newly elected Blue Dogs. And, ya know what? That "could" spell revenge? Ahead. Maybe, we should post one of those road signs? CURVES AHEAD. Or beware of the deer?

Posted by Angry Dumbo | August 7, 2007 4:33 PM

GW needs to throw Ted Stevens a retirement party in the worst of ways.

Posted by Adjoran | August 7, 2007 10:52 PM

The Democrats never intended more than a head-feint towards true earmark reform - for the same reason the Republicans wouldn't: earmarks are nearly universally popular among members.

Earmarks inserted outside the normal legislative/appropriations process are particularly attractive, having all the effectiveness of traditional "pork barrel spending" without the messy publicity. Members get 100% of the credit at home (they make darned sure of that) with zero risk. What's not to love?

Now, it's a downright shady way of doing the public's business, but since only Congress can change the way Congress does that business, no major change is in the offing anytime soon.

What's that? "Throw the bums out!" you say? My, where have I heard that before?

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