Last Thursday, the Senate passed 83-14 a new ethics reform bill designed to address the problem of corruption on Capitol Hill. Unfortunately, Democrats eviscerated key provisions of the reform package (called the "Honest Leadership and Open Government Act of 2007") to the point where you could drive a truck through the loopholes. This, according to The Hill newspaper:
“…the new measure's treatment of earmarking, which conservatives consider the root of recent congressional scandals, sparked immediate contention. Republicans protested the removal of a ban on trading earmarks for votes, as well as the transferal of authority to certify compliance with earmark disclosure to chairmen or the majority leader rather than the Senate parliamentarian.”
Earmarking occurs when a congressman designates taxpayer funds to be spent on specific projects. Sometimes, these earmarks are corrupt "gifts" provided by politicians to campaign contributors, business partners, friends and family members in their district. Perhaps the most notorious recent example was the infamous "Bridge to Nowhere," a $223 million boondoggle earmarked in 2005 to construct a bridge connecting an Alaskan town of 7,500 people to an island with a population of 50. After public outcry, the
earmark was removed.
With respect to the Democrat-crafted ethics reform bill, as always, the devil is in the details. For example, the old version of ethics reform, approved by the House and Senate in January, restricted earmarks that financially benefit legislators, their families, their staff and their staff's families. The new version restricts earmarks that "only" benefit these individuals. In other words, even if an earmark enriches a legislator's family, so long as at least one other person is positively impacted, the earmark is permissible.
Moreover, as currently constructed, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) and Senator Robert Byrd (D-WV) - two of the biggest earmarkers in the Senate - would be in charge of determining whether an earmark has been properly disclosed to the public. This is, as Senator Jim DeMint (R-SC) put it, the equivalent of the "fox guarding the henhouse."
And, finally, while Democrats claim the bill will force earmark certifications to be disclosed on the Internet, this provision is only mandated if it is "technically feasible." In other words, complete public disclosure is only a suggestion and not a requirement.
In the last election cycle, the issue of corruption led to a Democratic landslide as voters were turned off by the slew of scandals that occurred while Republicans were in power. Democrats had a golden opportunity to prove they were serious about ethics reform. And, in my view, they fell short. True, the legislation contains some good provisions that might fix a bit of the corruption on Capitol Hill. However, the fact is even if every provision of this bill is enforced – which is a stretch (given the inactive ethics committees in Congress) – it is doubtful it would eliminate the conflicts of interest at the root of the corruption problem on Capitol Hill.