Ethics Transparency: an Ongoing Challenge

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While we wait for the new House Rules draft to be posted online, it’s a good time to reflect on the kind of problems that these rules changes are solving, and the kinds of changes that they aren’t solving.

I characterized the 72 Hour Rule and the committee reforms this morning as “the kinds of changes that can change the way citizens relate to the legislative process online.” Citizens will have a better opportunity to understand committees’ work, and to follow legislation before it’s considered on the floor.

Transparency in Congress, though, also takes on another target: influence. While we’ll have to wait and see what kind of ethics reforms are in the House Rules for the 112th Congress, we’re reassured that the Office of Congressional Ethics will continue its vital operations.

Even that office, though, has to contend with a deeper problem. Congress often lacks clear standards about what is acceptable or unacceptable behavior.

The line between coincidence and quid pro quo is often blurry and gray. The politics of ethics accusations thrives on this ambiguity, and public attitudes about Congress suffer as well.

Take, for example, this passage from a New York Times story about Members of Congress meeting with foreign governments:

But Mr. Rohrabacher’s trip last February was different because he pushed for small, specific companies with which he had personal and political ties. The coin dealer, John R. Saunders, is a big contributor to Mr. Rohrabacher’s campaigns, dating back at least a decade. The president of SG Biofuels, Kirk Haney, is a friend of Mr. Rohrabacher’s wife and a former intern in the congressman’s office, Mr. Rohrabacher said, as well as a contributor.

Members of Congress often push for the interests of businesses in their district, and Rohrabacher is pushing for businesses that related directly to his campaign (through contributions) and his family (through personal relationships). Does that make it wrong, though?

Eyebrow raising, perhaps even eye-popping. But will it come up in campaign season? Will the Ethics Committee investigate? Will the Office of Congressional Ethics? Do voters care? Or is this just a legislator, faithfully representing his constituents?

This problem plays itself out in one arena after another. Earmarks to campaign contributors may give off the appearance of impropriety, but prosecution is entirely unlikely, since Members can always appeal to their discretion in assessing merit.

The same holds for fundraisers held near votes. It stinks to high heaven of votes for sale, but the practice is still widespread.

In order to distinguish between “business as usual” and corruption, we need to draw better lines about what is acceptable and what isn’t acceptable. Currently, those lines are negotiated through a fierce and cynical politics of ethics accusations, combined with the ethics guidelines that savvy legislators can often easily skirt. Those standards, all to often, prove insufficient.

Those insufficient standards, in turn, create opportunities for Members of Congress to exploit — for personal or political gain.

Most clearly, we need better disclosure of the information of ethics and influence, so we can make better determinations about what is corrupt and what isn’t. The personal financial disclosures of Members of Congress and top staffers should be disclosed in meaningful detail, and filings with the Clerk and Secretary of the Senate should be publicly available online, not just through an office visit.

Most urgently, we need better disclosure of newly deregulated spending on political ads and the lobbying it empowers, so that we will at least know whether powerful interests are perverting the integrity of our public policy.

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