How the Democrats Played at Reform

Dems risk blowing a chance to clean up Congress and win politically.

| Tue May 2, 2006 3:00 AM EDT

This was the year that the Democrats were supposed to seize on the public outrage over Republican corruption (and incompetence) as a mandate to clean up Washington and win back Congress. But by the end of last week, Congress moved even closer to passing weak legislation that did little to alter the way business is done in Washington – and, some critics say, Democratic weakness, hypocrisy and ineptness has helped make it all possible. Advocates of the Republican’s pseudo-reform bill won a 215-207 procedural vote last Thursday allowing debate on the legislation while barring strong Democratic-supported amendments. Fred Wertheimer, the president of the Democracy 21 advocacy group, commented about the “reform” legislation: “This is based on the premise that you can fool all of the people all of the time. It’s an attempt at one of the greatest legislative scams I’ve seen in my 30 years of working on these issues.” A vote on the “sham” Republican bill (PDF) is scheduled for this Wednesday.

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Part of the blame falls on the Democrats and their sometimes feckless response to the ethics crisis, according to some watchdog groups and even a few pro-reform Congressional staffers. Melanie Sloan, the head of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), among others, argues, “The Democrats’ behavior has been absolutely appalling. They want the public to think that they’re pushing ethics reform but nobody really wants to give up the perks of their office. They bungled the opportunity and they snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.”

Indeed, on the political front, “Democrats haven’t done a great job drawing a sharp distinction [on ethics] between themselves and the Republicans,” says Norman Ornstein, the resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.” They’re missing a bit of an opportunity. But it’s a risky business: They don’t want to call for the toughest imaginable restrictions and then have to live under them.” The Democrats also haven’t yet effectively convinced the public that there’s a connection between sleazy practices in the Republican-led Congress, and the pocketbook issues of skyrocketing gas prices and the chaotic Medicare prescription drug progam, although they’re now trying to do so. Matt Hogan, an analyst with the progressive public polling firm Democracy Corps, observes: “There’s an opportunity for Democrats to gain traction with corruption if they show how it relates to people’s lives” – but that message hasn’t really registered yet.

In fact, it’s apparently hard enough for legislators of both parties to remember that we’re in the midst of a major Congressional corruption scandal. Just two days before the procedural vote that could help assure passage this week of the Republican-sponsored bill widely derided as a “joke,” Common Cause President Chellie Pingree pointed out, “It seems hard to believe it was less than four months ago that we were cracking open some of these scandals around Jack Abramoff.” She cited the guilty pleas of Abramoff and two Tom DeLay aides for bribery, Rep. Duke Cunningham’s imprisonment for receiving $2 million in bribes and an ongoing federal criminal investigation of lawmakers. “Why, when both parties were practically falling all over themselves introducing ethics legislation and lobbying reform proposals, have they come up with such a pathetic piece of legislation?” she asked.

It’s all a far cry from reform rhetoric spouted by Congressional leaders after they took office in January. (Even the Speaker of the House, Denny Hastert, was calling for a ban on gifts from lobbyists and privately financed travel before his Republican members pushed back.) And with dreams of Newt Gingrich’s 1994 Republican Congressional revolution dancing in their heads, the Democrats started the year auspiciously enough in the high-domed Great Hall of the Library of Congress to proclaim their dedication to real change, just a few weeks after Jack Abramoff pleaded guilty to conspiracy to bribe public officials and agreed to cooperate with prosecutors in providing evidence against primarily Republican lawmakers. It was a gift from the political gods, and the Democrats marched forward to grab their opportunity. As taped Colonial-era martial music played, snare drums tapping away insistently, dozens of Democratic legislators entered from the wings, including the leaders and stars of the party, from Rep. Nancy Pelosi to Senators Barack Obama and Hilary Clinton, all standing on a raised stage before two enormous American flags suspended beneath the gold-leafed ceiling. Between the flags, there was a huge banner proclaiming their new theme: “Honest Leadership, Open Government.”

This time, the Democrats were finally going to unite around a common goal and employ the visual theatrics that Republican maestros, starting with Michael Deaver, Reagan’s PR whiz, have used to successfully bludgeon Democrats for decades. The rhetoric, whether from pallid speakers such as Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) or the party’s best orator, Sen. Obama, portrayed the Democrats as champions of bold reform and clean government, while painting Republicans as the evil agents of the “culture of corruption.” Rep. Pelosi claimed as she outlined a reform charter that they all signed at the end of the event: “Democrats are leading the effort to turn the most closed, corrupt Congress in history into the most open, honest Congress in history. That is why, with our declaration of honest leadership and open government, we are pledging to enact and enforce legislation that will ban all gifts and travel from lobbyists, period; kill the K Street Project, the Republican plan that trades favors for lobbying jobs, and toughen disclosure of lobbyist activity; remove the revolving door by doubling the amount of time members and staff are prohibited from going from legislating to lobbying…”

But the break-out star of the event, Rep. Louise Slaughter, best underscored the political stakes for Democrats and the public in the fight for ethics reform. She is a feisty grandmother with a soft Appalachian accent and the ranking Democrat on the House Rules Committee; she fired up the crowd with a blistering attack on corrupt Republicans selling legislation, such as energy policy and Medicare Part D, to corporate fat-cats. She concluded, “We're going to take the country back, and we throw the gauntlet down today!”

Yet only four months later, the Democratic leadership in both the House and Senate had essentially blown the opportunity for meaningful ethics and lobbying reform – while failing so far to capitalize on the reform issue for the mid-term elections. One key reason for this feeble response, as Fred Wertheimer of Democracy 21 points out, “Many members of Congress love their perks, and this has become a battle to hold on to financial perks and benefits that lobbyists provide.” The legislators are especially resistant to any outside investigative office looking into misconduct, even one that merely reports to the current ethics committees its findings for possible action. “Both Republicans and Democrats are against changing the status quo, apparently because they felt the current system protects them from serious ethics investigations. Both parties have failed to take the kind of approach that is necessary to achieve effective lobbying [and ethics] reform in Congress,” he says.

So the House bill likely headed for approval, the Orwellian-style “Lobbying Accountability and Transparency Act of 2006,” offers only meager improvements in disclosing lobbying contacts while ignoring any tough reform measures. The Democrats in the House were, by week’s end, uniting against the measure, but, in some ways, they have themselves to blame for its probable passage. The bill just temporarily suspends privately-funded travel until after the election, and allows the use of corporate jets, unrestricted lobbyist spending on parties to “honor” legislators, and most gifts and lavish meals to continue unabated from lobbyists. Most critically, it omits a measure to create an independent Office of Public Integrity that would investigate wrongdoing, enforce current rules and make recommendations to the inactive or dysfunctional ethics committees in the House and Senate. As Rep. Lou Doggett (D-Tex.) said on the floor, “Tragically, the party of Abraham Lincoln has become the party of Abramoff.”

In fact, this bill, by leaving untouched virtually all current lax ethics rules, would enable another Abramoff to ply legislators with gifts, travel and campaign contributions. “Technically, almost everything he did was legal,” notes Public Citizen’s legislative representative Craig Holman. “It’s the first time the Justice Department is pursuing a bribery case against someone who was mostly operating within the law.” It was largely Abramoff’s blatant efforts to forge an explicit quid-pro-quo with legislators that got him in trouble (although the extravagant free meals he offered at his restaurant violated Congressional ethics rules.)

On the floor of the House last week, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi complained, “The Republican leadership's so-called Lobbying Accountability and Transparency Act holds no one accountable and provides little transparency to the activities of lobbyists or anyone else. It is an embarrassingly trivial response to the culture of corruption that has thrived under this Republican Congress.” Yet, as one Democratic staffer points out, “Both parties flinched from taking on real reform.”

Earlier, Pelosi even signaled her opposition to an independent office to do the investigative work that hasn’t been done by the House Ethics Committee, immobilized by partisan gridlock for 16 months. Spokesperson Jennifer Cryder argues, “The ethics committee has the capacity and responsibility to enforce the rules.”

In fact, they rarely have done so in recent years. And the House has been operating for about a decade, experts say, under an unspoken truce in which neither party files ethics complaints against other members -- with very rare exceptions, such as the three complaints against Tom DeLay filed by an angry Texas Democrat in 2004 that ultimately led to DeLay’s downfall.

The real reason most members oppose a public integrity office? “They don’t want to go to anywhere near a Ken Starr-type individual who could possibly destroy Congress,” says a Democratic staffer who supports the integrity office, which wouldn’t actually have anything like such broad prosecutorial powers. “They say let’s keep this process internal.”

Last month, Senate Democrats showed their true colors on reform by joining in a 67-30 vote against an office of public integrity, and backing a relatively weak bill that passed in a 90-8 vote. While it did ban gifts and increase disclosure, the bill didn’t bar privately-funded travel or lobbyists from hosting lavish parties and fund-raisers honoring members. Senator Obama, an advocate of independent oversight, joined the Senate’s most long-standing reformers, John McCain and Russ Feingold, in voting against the mild legislation. While Minority Leader Reid hailed the legislation, Sen. Obama, Reid’s anointed “point person” on reform, said after the vote, “Ironically, after learning today that Jack Abramoff will spend nearly six years in prison, the Senate passed a lobbying reform bill that does little to change the culture that allowed him to abuse the system in the first place.” The Democrats’ abandonment of independent oversight was striking: “The Office of Public Integrity is the real test whether we get substantial lobbying reform,” according to Craig Holman.

On that test, Congress has clearly flunked – while undercutting Democrats’ efforts to position themselves as reformers. Norman Ornstein of AEI contends, “That one vote [against the ethics office] really is a big setback for any kind of campaign claiming that the problem is on the other side,” a position worsened by mounting allegations of financial improprieties against Rep. Alan Mollohan, forced to resign as the ranking chairman of the ethics committee last week. (But Democrats, despite Pelosi’s initial defense of him, did soften the damage by pressuring him to leave his post.)

To their credit, most Democrats in the House finally realized last week that approving weak legislation like their Senate counterparts didn’t allow them to claim the reform mantle. They voted unanimously against the feeble Republican bill. They also appeared to support most of the stricter reform measures crafted by Rep. Marty Meehan (D-MA) and Rep. Chris Shays (R-Conan.), except, perhaps, the independent ethics office. At least, they favored allowing floor votes on them, which the Republican leadership refused to permit. As advocated by Public Citizen and other reformers, the proposed amendments aimed not just to create an ethics enforcement office but also restrict the use of corporate jets to fly members of Congress on travel junkets and flatly ban gifts, among other measures. But by the time the House Rules Committee, which routinely rigs the rules to ban Democratic amendments, voted along party lines to prohibit these amendments, Democrats and the broader progressive community had failed to awaken much public interest in the need for reform.

Indeed, on the day of the House Rules Committee vote, Republican leaders explained why they felt little constituent pressure to pass a strong bill. Jo Maney, a spokeswoman for Rep. David Dreier (R-CA.), the Rules Committee chairman honchoing the Republican bill, told the Washington Post, “Many members have told him [Dreier] that they are not hearing about corruption and lobbying reform at home. They hear more about immigration, gas prices.”

One major reason for this seeming apathy is that Democrats haven’t made the sale to the public that corruption affects people personally, including the skyrocketing gas prices they’re paying. Even though reformers such as Rep. Slaughter who, with reports like “America for Sale,” have tried to show the connection between shady lobbying and procedural practices, and the resulting pro-business, anti-consumer legislation , they haven’t succeeded in driving that point home. (One key reason: major media outlets have viewed such stories as too arcane and "inside-the-Beltway" to be worth much coverage.) More prominent Democrats also haven’t incorporated that theme into an effective change message that anyone is noticing. Still, Pelosi sought to make the case last week about the real-world impact of Republican wrong-doing: “This corruption has come at great cost to the American people in terms of higher prices at the pump, a Medicare prescription drug bill that does little to lower spiraling drug costs, and the waste and fraud in the Gulf Coast and Iraq.”

But Matt Hogan of Democracy Corps, says, “I haven’t really seen the evidence that the cost of corruption has come into the political debate. I don’t think corruption is one of the top tier issues now, and it’s fallen out of the public eye.” Perhaps a bit wistfully, he adds, “I’m hoping that given the increase in gas prices that can help bring the debate back into focus: the Republican-controlled Congress gave billions in subsidies to the oil industries.”

Even though Congress has a job approval rating lower than the President’s – fewer than 30 percent – the Democrats are seen as only slightly ahead of the Republicans on dealing with government ethics, according to a recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll. The latest non-partisan Pew Research poll found that fewer than half the public is very concerned about corruption in Congress. But when people are asked about it, up to 75 percent of citizens favor sweeping reforms that the Congress has rejected, including the independent office of public integrity. But nobody’s really bothering to raise their awareness. With the Democrats offering such half-hearted leadership on ethics reform – although still hoping to use it as an election-year issue against Republicans – they haven’t made it a priority. In fact, as one senior Democratic staffer admits, there’s little need to file ethics complaints or push for independent oversight because, most Democrats believe, the Republican scandals are doing their political work for them. “Barely a week goes by without the indictment, arraignment or arrest of a Republican,” this Congressional source says.

Yet by failing to push for independent, tough oversight, the Democrats have essentially helped turn Congress into an ethics-free zone that is basically unmonitored. Norman Ornstein, the co-author of the forthcoming Broken Branch, a book on Congress, compares the situation to driving on urban Massachusetts Avenue if D.C. police stopped enforcing speeding laws: “You’d have some cars going at 120 miles an hour, some [breaking the law] at 50 miles an hour, but no one would be looking at their speedometers.” In Congress, he notes, “Nobody pays any attention to the rules.”

And, to some observers of the politics of reform, that’s just the way most Democrats like it. Craig Holman points out, “They were very slow and reluctant to come out for sweeping reforms, and they’ve made it quite clear that if they were the party in power the outcome would be quite similar to what we have now.” And, some watchdogs believe, by talking tough on reform before the mid-term election – without actually facing the consequences of any real reforms passing – Democrats hope to create a political win-win situation for themselves. With the exception of a small band of dedicated reformers in both houses of Congress, the Democrats , just like the Republicans, don’t want to give up all the lobbyist-linked goodies and donations available to them -- but still want to parade as reformers when challenging Republicans. “It’s all just pretend, it’s just positioning,” Melanie Sloan says. “Democrats will campaign on the culture of corruption, but I don’t know how successful they will be.”

No matter the election results, though, they’ll still take comfort in flying on corporate jets, raking in lobbyist-arranged campaign cash and feasting at fund-raisers and parties held in their honor. This reform racket, some cynics believe, never looked so good to the Democrats.

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