Saturday, August 2, 2014
Inquirer Daily News

Flavia Monteiro Colgan | DEMS ON ETHICS: DAY LATE, DOLLAR SHORT

NEWTON'S Third Law of Motion states, "For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction." Newton obviously never met the Democratic Party.

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 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. The Democrats should have proposed an ethics plan as strong and bold as the GOP's is weak and foundering.

Yet this week, 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 bold 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 laundry list of items that nibble around the edges of the 800-ton blob eating Washington: corruption in politics.

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

One big thing 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 help the clients out, a quid pro quo.

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 flaws of the current campaign finance system.

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

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

Here 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. The blind-trusts issue is serious because if a politician knows what stocks they have, they can use their power for their own personal benefit.

It's no surprise Casey tacked a couple of items onto his own plan (implying that 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: Tierney. Obey. Frank.

Rep. David Obey is a congressman from Wisconsin who, 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 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 said. "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.

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, even Newton would be proud.

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