Dems on Ethics: A Day Late and a Dollar Short

Flavia Colgan

Newton’s Third Law of Motion states, For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.” Newton obviously never met the Democratic Party.

Only the Democrats could come up with such an underwhelming plan on ethics reform when a strong proposal would have been a political grand slam.

The Republican Congress has proven to be the most corrupt in generations and has bungled its response to the ethics problems by electing special-interest favorite Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio) as its new House majority leader.

As one of his first acts, Boehner proposed to water down the already weak Republican package on ethics reform. To counter, the Democrats should have proposed an ethics plan as strong and bold as the GOP’s is weak and floundering.

Yet in early February, a top Democratic staffer was quoted in a Capitol Hill newspaper saying, It’s not clear that we have to go out with a bold, comprehensive package.”

So much for Newton.

Only the Democrats could come up with such an underwhelming plan on ethics reform when a strong proposal would have been a political grand slam.

In case you missed it (and you’re not alone if you did), the ethics reform proposed by the Democrats is a peashooter aimed at the edges of the 800-ton blob eating Washington: corruption in politics.

It includes proposals like banning corporate-paid travel, improving lobbying disclosure and extending the time a former member of Congress must wait before becoming a lobbyist.

One big target is missing: campaign contributions. The scandal du jour inside the Beltway right now, Jack Abramoff’s dealings, has less to do with any of the above than it has to do with his clients giving loads of campaign cash to members of Congress who used their power to, quid pro quo, help the clients out.

By not addressing the role of campaign contributions in their ethics reform plan, the Democrats lead voters to one of two conclusions: Democrats are benefiting from the same system and want it to stay in place, or Democrats are oblivious to the system’s current flaws.

Either way, their plan does nothing to inspire confidence in voters that a change in the congressional majority will address the root problem of money in politics.

Of course, there are some Democrats who have gone out on their own, and split with the party to present their own ethics-reform plans.

In Pennsylvania, Senate candidate Bob Casey has presented a plan that addresses the role of poor lobbying disclosure and politicians’ having blind trusts” that aren’t really blind. Blind trusts are just what they sound like: When a lawmaker enters office, they place their investments in a trust which they cannot see. They do not know where their money is or how it is being invested. This issue is serious because if a politician knows what stocks they have, they can use their power for their own personal benefit. It was highlighted when it was revealed that Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist knew where some of his money was invested in 2002, when he received regular updates on his investments, and even initiated a sale of stock that was to his benefit. Thus far, Frist has danced around murky ethics rules to maintain no wrongdoing. Casey’s plan would amend ethics rules to guarantee that when a politician has a blind trust, it is kept completely blind.

It’s no surprise Casey tacked a couple of items onto his own plan – the Democratic plan is not enough. Casey has long shown a maverick side, bucking the party leadership on abortion as well as on the New Democrat” penchant for pushing trade pacts that hurt U.S. workers.

But the truly bold leaders on this issue are names you rarely hear: Obey, Frank and Tierney.

Rep. David Obey is a congressman from Wisconsin who, along with Rep. Barney Frank of Massachusetts, has proposed a system that would take private campaign contributions completely out of races for the House.

Why did Obey propose his own ethics reform instead of sticking with the Democratic package?

Right now, this is going to come down to who’s got the tighter limits on trips, or who’s got the tighter limits on meals. With all due respect, I don’t care what happens with either one of those,” he says. In general elections, there should not be a dime of private money.”

Rep. John Tierney is a Massachusetts congressman who has for years been pushing Clean Elections” – a voluntary system of public financing of all federal campaigns. With the current scandals, his legislation is getting renewed attention. The legislation used to be sponsored by the progressive champion, Paul Wellstone in the Senate, but there is currently no Senate member that has picked up the bill, though some senators like John Kerry, Christopher Dodd, Dick Durbin and Russ Feingold have voiced support for the idea.

Obey, Frank and Tierney have it right: The only response to the ethics scandals facing Congress is to fundamentally change the system by taking money completely out of it. It’s good policy and good politics, and a plan that the Democratic leadership should embrace. If they do, they’ll finally be following the basic law of physics.

Flavia Monteiro Colgan is an MSNBC commentator.
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