Despite Hill reforms, lobbyists thrive

Promise of ‘mostly ethical Congress’ still incomplete

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Four years ago, newly installed House Speaker Nancy Pelosi promised that Democrats would lead “the most honest, most open, most ethical Congress in history.”

But as her party defends its record with its majority in jeopardy, two prominent Democrats await ethics trials. Two other party members gave Congressional Black Caucus Foundation scholarships to relatives. Most importantly, lobbyists, corporations and special interests still have unimpeded ways to buy access to members of Congress.

Take House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn’s annual charity golf tournament, which provides college scholarships for needy students in his South Carolina district and funds the endowment he established at South Carolina State University.

It sounds like a worthy cause, but it’s a stretch to think that national companies that sponsored the event randomly chose students in the 6th Congressional District of South Carolina as a priority for charitable giving.

“It really doesn’t matter what the money is used for,” said Fred Wertheimer, who heads the Capitol Hill watchdog group Democracy 21. “If you’re asked to provide a large amount of money for something that is important to a member, you are doing a financial favor for the member. That benefit buys influence.”

Mr. Wertheimer credits Mrs. Pelosi with going far beyond previous speakers, saying she changed what Democrats once called a “culture of corruption” under Republican rule.

Yet, her reforms didn’t touch access-buying opportunities like campaign fundraisers, corporate-sponsored events for informal lawmaker organizations, or sports tournaments held by members’ charities.

The Sunlight Foundation, which tracks congressional fundraising events, has identified more than 9,500 since President George W. Bush signed the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act in September 2007. The law embodies reforms cited by Mrs. Pelosi as proof that she kept her promise to “drain the swamp” of congressional corruption.

The California Democrat was instrumental in winning increased disclosure of lobbyists’ spending and contributions; a ban on lobbyist gifts to lawmakers; the end of cheap rides on corporate jets; curtailment of privately financed trips that often amounted to free vacations; creation of an independent ethics office; and the identification of sponsors of “earmarks” - congressional spending targeting recipients, who often returned the favor with campaign contributions.

But at least one Pelosi reform failed miserably when given a reality check.

An Associated Press review last year found that few members of Congress were disclosing that lobbyists were helping them raise campaign cash - despite a provision of the 2007 law designed to shed light on the ties between lawmakers and the capital’s influence brokers.

Pelosi spokesman Brendan Daly said Democrats “have taken major steps to fulfill this promise,” adding, “As we consider further reform, we will examine updating these laws and the bipartisan comprehensive campaign-finance reform law passed in 2002.”

Mrs. Pelosi favors public financing of campaigns, but hasn’t had the votes to pass it. If she remains speaker, she will face a major test early next year on retaining the independent House Office of Congressional Ethics, which she calls a success story.

The office, which conducts preliminary ethics investigations, is run by a board of non-legislators. Its investigations have irritated enough members that several want to curb its authority or eliminate it. Republicans almost succeeded in blocking creation of the office in 2008, as Mrs. Pelosi won a 207-206 procedural vote to have the matter considered.

Republicans, trying to win back control of the House, now cite ethics charges against Reps. Charles B. Rangel of New York and Maxine Waters of California to argue that the speaker broke her word to run the most ethical Congress.

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