Fools On The Hill

Jack Abramoff AP

This commentary was written by CBSNews.com's Dick Meyer.
Because of APADD (adult political attention deficit disorder) the Senate has not been properly mocked for recent acts of impressive cowardice.

So let us now prick famous men, and women.

And while we're at it, let's give the pundit and political classes some current events Ritalin.

Last week, two separate Senate committees proved incapable of recommending even the most mild institutional tinkering that might help curb lobbying and ethics mischief. The Senate Rules Committee and the Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee (yes, lobbying is now an issue of homeland security) each somehow managed to do something unprecedented -- make even "cosmetic reform" look good. Next they'll be redeeming "band-aid" solutions.

Because its leaders dared dream big, the Government Affairs Committee is the bigger disappointment. Susan Collins and Joe Lieberman tried to convince the committee to vote to establish a professionally staffed office of public integrity, independent of Congress, to help police the mean, hard streets of lobbying, revolving doors and influence peddling. (A similar bipartisan pair, Chris Shays and Martin Meehan, is trying to peddle a similar plan in the House, and getting the door slammed on them faster than a pair of drunken Fuller Brush Men. The new majority leader, John Boehner, has already said thanks but no thanks.)

A couple of members of the Senate Ethics Committee are also on Government Affairs and apparently were key to convincing the assembled crusaders to vote the Collins-Lieberman proposal down, 11-5. They argued that congressional ethics committees could handle the work just fine and there was no need for bureaucracy.

One small problem: congressional ethics committees don't actually do anything anymore.

They make the U.N. seem like U.N.C.L.E. They make FEMA look like the A-Team. They give impotence a bad name.

The situation on the House side is marginally more appalling. Its ethics committee has been more or less officially closed for business since a truce was declared between parties in the 1990s and they agreed not to beat each other up with ethics complaints. It is true that from the late 1980s till around 1997, Democrats and Republicans used official ethics complaints is partisan cudgels. Both sides suffered, as did the, er, prestige of the House.

So House leaders called a truce; members would no longer file complaints against other (nor would they publicly admit they truce exists). In 1997, they also passed a rule barring complaints from outsiders. Instead of ratcheting down an ethics arms race, they went out of the ethics business entirely. The House Ethics committee has sat out the DeLay and Cunningham controversies and numerous -- probably unknown -- other matters. If you can't beat 'em, run away and hide.

The Senate committee, which had been very active and effective in the 1980s and 1990s, has been equally quiet, but with marginally less sinister motives. It too has sat out major controversies involving, among others, the majority leader, Bill Frist. It slapped Robert Torricelli around a bit in 2002 ad that was the committee's only significant public action in years.

Yet even if the committees did try to do their jobs, they probably couldn't.

They simply don't have the staff, the resources, the incentive or the independence. Lobbying has become a big, complicated and sophisticated business that can only be policed by a full-time professional organization. And lobbying is only one area where a member of Congress can stray. The task of simply disclosing to a barely adequate degree all that should be known about lobbying activities, congressional travel and entertainment, personal finances, staff-level data and conflict of interest information is too big for part-time committee members and shell staffs.

"How are we enforcing our laws? Things are filed, and, in some cases, nothing's done about it," the chairman of the Senate Ethics Committee, George Voinovich, complained two weeks ago. Great point. The problem -- the absurd problem --- is that Voinovich was the guy who led the argument against an independent office of public integrity in committee last week.

So enforcing existing current law with current levels of resources and political resolve isn't an option. That is precisely why creating some kind of independent public integrity operation is a legitimate and minimal litmus test of serious reform right now. It might make a small but real difference. And that is precisely why it will not happen.

Instead, the Senate, which is debating lobbying reform this week, will do things like add some disclosure requirements about trips (not ban them), meals and drinks. Retiring members might have to wait two years instead of one before they could officially lobby their ex-colleagues. Big stuff, right? Presto: American politics is clean again, son.

These are a couple silly rules that will generate more bits of data that no one has the time or training to inspect. Like most half-baked reform -- be it in taxation, campaign finance, or lobbying -- professionals will find and exploit loopholes quickly, and the most important consequences will be unintended.

Real, deep change would entail revamping the entire systems of funding both campaigns and the operations of government. That isn't in the cards. I am increasingly attracted to a pure market approach: lift all limits on political spending and speech and let the political market have its way. That isn't in the cards. Creating a legitimate enforcement operation, however, may be a modest and effective measure. It's the bare minimum now acceptable.

But the Democrats, says one reform advocate, are "trying to capitalize on a scandal without taking any kind of action." Republicans are trying to minimize a scandal without taking any kind of action.

Hold on, though. Wasn't Jack Abramoff's guilty plea a few weeks ago a watershed? Wasn't clean government the defining issue of the day just a few days ago? Weren't Democrats going to ride lobbying reform into a sweep of the November mid-term elections?

In the words of Emily Litella, "Never mind." All that is so passé.

Remember how after Katrina, the hot issue was going to be government competence at the core safety and security functions? Not. Even the Arab-bashing brought on by the Dubai deal is pretty well played out.

Break out the Ritalin.



Dick Meyer, is the Editorial Director of CBSNews.com.

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