IN WHAT had to be the only bad decision George Washington ever made, he chose a putrid swamp to be our nation's capital. Many years later, the piece of land he picked on the border of Virginia and Maryland still bears many of the qualities it did way back when.
From Jack Abramoff to Tom DeLay, from Halliburton to Duke Cunningham and William Jefferson, there are many reasons Americans still see our nation's home as a stinky marsh. In exit polls during the midterm elections, many Americans saw corruption in Congress as an issue even more important than the war in Iraq. That's why it was so encouraging to hear incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi say that one of the top priorities in the first 100 hours of the new Congress would be to "drain the swamp."
Now, we'll see if the speaker can turn her words into reality, or whether special interests and those who carry their water will make sure that her words are just all talk.
Signs point to the new speaker being able to make some progress, but so far what's been proposed is nibbling at the edges, not an all-out rehab of the swamp. She's proposed a gift ban, disallowing the meals, trips and trinkets that lobbyists bestow upon members, and an end to secret earmarks, the pork projects that a congressman can insert into a bill without his name being attached to the appropriation.
To be sure, these things make a good down payment on a cleaner Congress, but to really reform politics, Pelosi and the Democrats will have to go further. In the past, many well-meaning reforms ultimately did not make a difference because there was no follow-through.
Remember McCain-Feingold? The ban on soft money was a bold step, but only a first one toward getting money out of politics. Ultimately, the soft-money ban did very little to reform politics. While it closed the door to a lot of money that tainted our public officials, Congress failed to pay attention to the open windows, which special interests promptly slithered through.
So, Speaker Pelosi and the Democrats must keep vigilant if they really want to change the culture of corruption.
The Sunlight Foundation has laid out three very simple proposals that should be a part of any reform agenda in Congress. Rather than attack the symptoms of corruption, like gifts, they've wisely focused on the root problem: Corruption exists because there's a shroud of secrecy over the inner-workings of Congress.
Operating under the credo "Sunlight is the best disinfectant," the foundation proposes (1) requiring all required filings by members of Congress be made available on the Internet, in a searchable database, within 24 hours of their filing, (2) ensuring all non-emergency legislation be posted online at least 72 hours before it is voted on and (3) requiring all lobbyists to file on the Internet who they meet with and about what within 24 hours of those meetings.
NONE OF THIS is crazy or too difficult. Internet technology makes it all a very simple exercise.
Most important, these proposals recognize that much of the problem in Washington is that many disclosure requirements get printed on a piece of paper, which is then sent to some basement that looks like the warehouse at the end of "Raiders of the Lost Ark."
You can beef up lobbyist requirements, and other things like it, but as long as those disclosures are too hard to find, they're meaningless. Like mold, corruption grows best in the darkness.
Yes, Speaker Pelosi and the Democrats need to be bold in the types of bans they propose, and I'm glad they are starting to tackle the problem.
But, if they're serious about changing the culture in Washington, a very easy first step is to let the sunlight shine in.