Corruption in Congress may be too entrenched for reform

When San Francisco Democrat Nancy Pelosi was sworn in as the first female Speaker of the House of Representatives early this month, she deplored the Republicans' alleged "culture of corruption" and promised real ethics reform. So how's she doing so far? Let's take a closer look.

Frankly, I think Ms. Pelosi overreached when she promised to preside over "the most ethical Congress ever." One of the first ethics issues she faced was the troubling case of Rep. William Jefferson (D-La.), who is being investigated by the FBI after federal agents found $90,000 in cash in his refrigerator during the Hurricane Katrina disaster. Although Pelosi wanted to remove Jefferson from the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, the influential Black Caucus objected.

According to the Washington Post, "Several black Democrats complained that Pelosi wasn't their emperor or queen, while Jefferson implored his colleagues to keep him on Ways and Means for the sake of Hurricane Katrina's victims." Now keep in mind that Jefferson represents the most corrupt city (New Orleans) in the most corrupt state (Louisiana) in the nation, and you have the makings of a delicious political melodrama.

So what was Pelosi's next move? "You didn't elect me to be emperor or queen," she told fellow Democrats. "You elected me to be leader." Shortly thereafter, they voted to remove Jefferson from Ways and Means. So far so good. "But," as the Post observed, "it isn't yet clear whether Jefferson's ouster heralded a new era of honesty and accountability, or just a one-off political calculation inspired by the 2006 campaign." That remains to be seen.

The Post expressed reservations about Ms. Pelosi's true commitment to ethics reform by recalling that after the midterm elections "she ignored the ethical cloud around Rep. John Murtha of Pennsylvania to support his bid to become majority leader and she nearly chose Rep. Alcee Hastings of Florida to chair the Intelligence Committee even though the House once impeached him when he was a federal judge."

Early on, Speaker Pelosi threw herself a big $1,000-per-head celebration in Washington attended by hundreds of fat-cat lobbyists. And then she watered down minimum wage legislation to make sure it didn't cover low-wage workers in American Samoa, where a big company based in her district, StarKist, has a huge tuna-processing plant. So much for congressional ethics reform. It looks like business as usual to me.

When Republicans seized control of Congress in 1994, then-Speaker Newt Gingrich pledged to "restore accountability to Congress." By 2006, however, that pledge was a bad joke after, as the Post noted, "House Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas and his K Street Project had turned the corporate lobbying community into a virtual subsidiary of the GOP." Huge scandals engulfed DeLay, Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff and congressmen Duke Cunningham of California, Robert Ney of Ohio and Mark Foley of Florida, who went "cruising" for teen-aged congressional pages. And that hurt Republicans at the polls in November.

But now, Speaker Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada have an opportunity to deliver on their ethics promises. In Reid's case, however, valid questions remain about highly profitable Southern Nevada real estate deals. Apparently, he's been very lucky and/or very astute with his real estate investments, which have benefited him and his family to the tune of many millions of dollars. As a card-carrying capitalist, I don't begrudge our senior senator his good fortune, but I'd welcome clear evidence that he didn't cash-in on his high-level political connections.

A leading '08 presidential contender, Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), addressed the ethics issue in a recent Washington Post op-ed piece calling for tough, bipartisan congressional ethics legislation. Here's what he wrote: "This past Election Day, the American people sent a clear message to Washington: Clean up your act! ... Americans put their faith in Democrats because they want us to restore their faith in government, and that means more than window dressing when it comes to ethics reform." Are you listening, Ms. Pelosi? And Sen. Reid?

Obama voted against an '06 ethics bill because "it was too weak and unresponsive to the obvious need for comprehensive reform. ... We must stop any and all practices that would lead a reasonable person to believe that a public servant has become indebted to a lobbyist. That means a full ban on gifts and meals." Period. I wish him well but I fear that the bipartisan "culture of corruption" is so entrenched in Washington that most of our elected representatives will be extremely reluctant to give up those free flights to posh Caribbean resorts for meaningless "tourism seminars" and alleged "investigations." What are they investigating? The price of piña coladas? Give me a break!

And that's why I urge leaders of both parties to follow through on their high-sounding rhetoric by passing meaningful congressional ethics reform. Let's get it on!

• Guy W. Farmer, a semi-retired journalist and former U.S. diplomat, resides in Carson City.


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