Fix the ethics rules

On ethics, the House has accelerated from zero to 60 faster than a Porsche.

In the 1980s and 1990s, both parties learned the danger of using ethics complaints as a political weapon. Republicans and Democrats agreed to a truce, which lasted until last year but drew accusations from good-government groups that the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct was dysfunctional, or rather, not functioning at all.

Now, however, the panel has been revivified by the reinstatement of its old rules and with both sides apparently prepared for, even enthusiastic about, the likely resumption of ethics warfare. Democrats and Republicans know that it is usually the party in power — today, the GOP — that gets more tarnished when Congress falls into disrepute with the public.
>Members of Congress are scrambling to make sure no slip-up in their pasts can be used against them, but the number of lawmakers entangled in suspicion of impropriety or proven shoddy bookkeeping is already comfortably (or uncomfortably) into double figures.

Several aspects of this should give House members pause. The big picture is that most ethics complaints are illegitimate political tactics. If complaints are not reserved for genuine impropriety, the coinage is debased. Complainers become like the boy who cried wolf, heard but not taken seriously. Promiscuous and mischievous complaints make ethical violations easier, not harder. They besmirch government rather than cleansing it.

Second, both sides should recognize that political opponents are not a special ethically deviant genus. Lawmakers on Capitol Hill are, by and large, highly principled people who want their country to be governed well. They disagree about what that means, but disagreement should not, as it seems to, prompt members to question their opponents’ motives and thence their ethics.

Third, some of the ethics rules are ridiculous and need reform. Journalists and opposition researchers have caught lawmakers and staffers reporting that lobbyists rather than their clients paid for Congress members’ travel and entertainment, which is banned. The bogus distinction between lobbyists and their clients should be thrown out. Clients pay lobbyists, so the money used to influence lawmakers really comes from a single source. The pretense that it matters whether expenses are paid for from the left hand or the right is just silly.

Last, it is worth pondering the fact that it’s not lawmakers’ rule breaking that is shocking. Perhaps what’s really wrong is what is allowed. If, as the House has already agreed, it’s wrong for lobbyists to pay for foreign trips, to name just one example, it’s wrong for a corporation or trade association to do so, too. If the House wants to appear clean, the answer is not to have a rule that creates a distinction that fails the laugh test but to be clean. If that means lawmakers’ travel being paid for from the public purse, so be it.

Before they draw their swords for an ethics war, House members should roll up their sleeves and wrestle with their rules.

What the media say

Asbury Park Press

The hotly contested Tinton Falls municipal election — with the two slates seeking office combining to raise more than $25,000 with 10 days to go before Tuesday’s election — has exposed a flaw in the state’s campaign financial disclosure law. The threshold of $300 for revealing the names of contributors is too high. ...

The source of any contribution greater than $50 should be revealed. With the higher limits, it’s easier to disguise the sources of candidates’ contributions. In Tinton Falls, 60 percent of the contributions fell below the $300 threshold. …

The argument that the lower limit for public disclosure would discourage donors from exercising their right to participate in the political process doesn’t hold up — especially in a state where pay-to-play fuels political campaigns and in a county wracked with political corruption. ...

An informed electorate is the best way to diminish the power of the special interests.  — New Jersey, May 9

Rocky Mountain News
Last week, state lawmakers marched to the edge of a cliff, peered over for an uncomfortably long time, and then, regretfully but wisely, turned and retreated to safety.

They rejected a proposal to subsidize health costs for small businesses and link it to Referendum C. ...

That measure is designed to shore up existing programs ravaged by budget cutbacks since 2001, invest in long-postponed infrastructure such as highways, and bolster under-funded pensions. ...

Had it passed the reinsurance plan, the legislature would have delivered a fat gift to opponents of Referendum C, who are sure to claim it is just a stalking horse for Big Government. But that’s no reason for lawmakers to go out of their way to prove them right. They and Gov. Bill Owens have a strong case for Referendum C without trying to beguile voters with superficially attractive initiatives on health care.  — Denver, May 9