Pressure Cooling for Reform?

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A story in Monday’s Washington Post by Jeffrey Birnbaum and Jim VandeHei says in newsprint what a lot of Congress-watchers have been whispering in corridors: the pressure for reform of lobbyist and ethical rules in Congress may be slipping out of season.

This despite the fact that there’s been no real letup in stories about disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff – in fact there was yet another one on page one of Sunday’s Post. But the perception among members of Congress, say Birnbaum and VandeHei, is that ethics reform is an issue of little interest beyond the Beltway. John McCain (R-Ariz) put it this way:

“The reason why it didn’t happen was that members didn’t feel a sufficient amount of pressure to change the way they do business,” McCain said in reference to large-scale reform. “There’s a belief among my colleagues that our constituents are not concerned.”

“Our constituents are not concerned” can be comforting words to any incumbent who’d rather focus on something else, and a lot of members of Congress would rather talk about anything other than cleaning up their ethics rules.

What McCain’s and other members’ comments likely reflect is that the folks they talk to back home are focused more on immediate problems like Iraq, immigration and the cost of gas than they are on rules governing lobbyists in Washington, DC. Fair enough. But leaping from that observation to the conclusion that the public is giving members a free pass on the issue of corruption would be a big mistake – and a serious misreading of the public’s attitude.

If there’s one thing I found when I spent 50 days last year traveling US Route 50 and talking with voters, it’s that most Americans – whatever their political ideology – simply assume that politicians care a lot more about their own skin than anyone else’s. They expect their representatives to deal with messy issues like Iraq and immigration, and they can get angry when the politicians don’t. But when the subject is ethics, lobbying rules, corruption and the like, expectations – to put it mildly – are low. The operative emotion is more likely to be cynicism than anger. For the moment anyway.

But if members perceive that corruption is not a front-burner issue right now in the minds of a lot of constituents back home, it remains a big part of the background noise they hear whenever they look at Congress. Like commercials on TV, it’s a noise that nobody likes but everyone more or less learns to live with – at least that’s the hope of those who would rather change the subject.

But don’t forget, it’s only June. Most people have turned down the volume on their Congress-watching and turned up the volume on backyard barbeques, summer vacations, and weekends at the beach. After Labor Day the climate may be different and that background static may seem a lot more irritating than it does today – and a lot more dangerous to incumbents who think nobody cares.

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