- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 30, 2007

New ethics rules in Congress look strict on paper but lack robust enforcement to make them meaningful, a longtime pitfall of anti-corruption measures, government watchdogs say.

Lax enforcement, they say, exposes Democrats to criticism of conducting business as usual in Washington now that they hold the majority.

“If nobody steps up enforcement, the Democrats will have a problem in 2008,” said Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.

“Much of the conduct that everyone was upset about in the last election was already against the rules,” she said. “Now they are really, really against the rules. … Nothing has changed in the enforcement realm.”

The Senate bill, which passed 96-2, included bans on meals, junkets, air travel and other gifts from lobbyists.

However, the new majority must recognize that failure to uphold rules for even a small offense could hurt the Democrats, Ms. Sloan said.

The party’s election gains were credited partly to voter anger over Republican scandals such as the influence peddling of disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff and bribery schemes involving former Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham of California.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, is particularly vulnerable to charges of backsliding on ethics after promising the “most ethical Congress in history,” said Tom Fitton, president of Judicial Watch, a group promoting integrity in politics.

Mrs. Pelosi found out how vulnerable Monday when USA Today reported that she and two other top Democrats — Rep. Rahm Emanuel of Illinois, the caucus chairman, and Sen. Evan Bayh of Indiana — broke ethics rules by not disclosing that they are officers of their family charities.

“It was an oversight and we are working to correct it,” Pelosi spokesman Drew Hammill said. “The ethics process and all the regulations entailed are very complicated and obviously there is no intent to violate ethics rules.”

Mrs. Pelosi also must contend with “a cadre of corrupt members in her caucus,” Mr. Fitton said.

Tarnished Democrats include Rep. John Conyers Jr. of Michigan, who recently admitted that for years he used taxpayer-salaried staffers for personal errands and electioneering; and Rep. Jim McDermott of Washington, who remains embroiled in litigation for the 1997 leak to the press of an illegally taped telephone call involving Republican leaders.

Mr. Fitton faulted Mrs. Pelosi for echoing her Republican predecessor, former Speaker J. Dennis Hastert of Illinois, in objecting to the FBI search last year of Rep. William J. Jefferson’s congressional office.

Mr. Jefferson, Louisiana Democrat, is the target of a federal bribery probe that so far has turned up $90,000 stashed in his home freezer.

“The Democrats were the ones saying it was a ‘New Day,’ ” Mr. Fitton said. “It sounds to me like it is the same sort of institutional prerogatives that are being asserted.”

Mrs. Pelosi said she will name a bipartisan task force to study enforcement options and deliver a report in late March. Senate Democrats have promised hearings.

Still, Congress historically resists independent oversight, and ethics panels in both chambers are criticized for inaction.

A proposal to set up an Office of Public Integrity to enforce the rules died earlier this month in the Senate on a 71-27 vote.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, said through a spokesman that many watchdog groups viewed the new ethics legislation as a major step forward.

The legislation also would require more lobbying restrictions and disclosure of earmarks, or spending provisions that lawmakers often bury in complex legislation to fund “pork projects” in their home districts or states.

“Some of these provisions are going to be enforced by the Senate ethics committee and some are going to be enforced by the Department of Justice,” Reid spokesman Jim Manley said.

Ms. Sloan and Mr. Fitton did applaud the rule changes, but they remain skeptical that rules alone will curb corruption.

“The Democratic leadership knows they have a problem here with the enforcement,” Ms. Sloan said.

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