As is often the case, Stephen Colbert aptly summed up one of the predicaments the new Democratic congressional majority will face in his "The Word" segment the other night. Urging Democrats to "Play Ball," Colbert sets out why the newly empowered party should put aside its pledges to curb the power of lobbyists and rein in the ethical transgressions that clearly contributed to the Republicans' downfall earlier this month. "You can't reform lobbying unless you stay in power--so if you want to end politicians taking money from lobbyists, you need to take money from lobbyists so you can stay in power to end it!"
The faux-Fox pundit pithily sums up one of the two dilemmas here: is there more to gain, in terms of power perpetuation, by pushing back against the abuses of the system, or by co-opting them? He addresses the other, normative, question by implication: should Democrats try to do the right thing even if it works against their own parochial interests?
My answer, of course, is "of course." The value of a Democratic congressional majority has three main aspects: one is to block the worst instincts and ideas of the Deciderer in the White House, another is to try and shore up the sagging foundations of American governance, and the third is to shift public priorities and the resources to make change happen. Of the three, the last is what the press focuses on, to the extent they focus on substance at all: Democrats will raise the minimum wage, try to amend Medicare Part D so the government can negotiate drug prices, begin redeployment out of Iraq, and so forth. This is connected to the first part: without a rubber-stamp Congress, Bush can't really launch any additional wars, destroy the social safety net, put cronies in top positions, et cetera (though it's worth noting that Michael "Brownie" Brown was confirmed as FEMA director while Democrats controlled the Senate, thanks in large part to our pal Joe Lieberman).
But without progress on Front #2, gains on the other two fronts are tenuous and provisional at best. The Republicans have locked in an institutional advantage by aggressively courting the lobbyist community, which multiplied many times over between 2001 and the present and eventually mutated past all previously held restrictions of propriety and common sense. The result has been a fundamental perversion of policymaking, with laws substantially crafted for and written by the most powerful interests in the country.
So where stands the reform push? In flux, according to the New York Times:
Democratic leaders in the House and the Senate, mindful that voters in the midterm election cited corruption as a major concern, say they are moving quickly to finalize a package of changes for consideration as soon as the new Congress convenes in January.
Their initial proposals, laid out earlier this year, would prohibit members from accepting meals, gifts or travel from lobbyists, require lobbyists to disclose all contacts with lawmakers and bar former lawmakers-turned-lobbyists from entering the floor of the chambers or Congressional gymnasiums.
None of those measures would overhaul campaign financing or create an independent ethics watchdog to enforce the rules. Nor would they significantly restrict earmarks, the pet projects lawmakers can insert anonymously into spending bills, which have figured in several recent corruption scandals and attracted criticism from members in both parties. The proposals would require disclosure of the sponsors of some earmarks, but not all.
Now, though, some Democrats say their election is a mandate for more sweeping changes. Many newly elected candidates, citing scandals involving several Republican lawmakers last year, made Congressional ethics a major issue during the campaign.
Sweeping changes, however, may be a tough sell within the party. Representative John P. Murtha, Democrat of Pennsylvania, was embarrassed by disclosures last week that he had dismissed the leadership proposals with a vulgarity at a private meeting. But Mr. Murtha is hardly the only Democrat who objects to broad changes. Senator Dianne Feinstein, the California Democrat who will oversee any proposal as the incoming chairwoman of the rules committee, for example, said she was opposed an independent Congressional ethics watchdog. “If the law is clear and precise, members will follow it,” she said in an interview. “As to whether we need to create a new federal bureaucracy to enforce the rules, I would hope not.”
Other Democratic lawmakers argued that the real ethical problem was the Republicans, not the current ethics rules, so the election alleviated the need for additional regulations. “There is an understanding on our side that the Republicans paid a price for a lot of the abuses that evolved,” said Representative Barney Frank, Democrat of Massachusetts, referring to earmarks.
Frankly, Frank should know better. (Sorry.) The Founders understood that human nature was not to be trusted (and of course they weren't overly fond of parties in the first place): laws, not the judgment of individuals, were to guide the behavior of public servants. This is a less blatantly evil variation on the argument that there's no need to explicitly ban torture, because the enlightened administration of George W. Bush simply wouldn't do such things. Except, of course, he would, and similarly some number of Democratic legislators will bend any too-lax rules and standards to their breaking point and, almost inevitably, beyond. Crooked Democratic Rep. William Jefferson isn't even gone from Congress yet--hopefully he'll lose his runoff next month--and it already looks as if the party might have forgotten the lessens his crimes should have taught them.
And Feinstein, who has legal but shady ties to all manner of corporate concerns and lobbyists, shows her colors by pushing against any strong enforcement measures. Hopefully a large enough number of her colleagues will show more common sense. Chellie Pingree, herself an unsuccessful Senate candidate from 2002, points the way here:
Advocates of an overhaul believe the reaction to the Congressional embarrassments make the Democratic takeover of Capitol Hill their best chance for significant change since the aftermath of Watergate, when Congress created the presidential campaign finance system. But they consider the Democratic proposals just the beginning of a cleanup.
“A ban on gifts, meals, corporate jet flights — a lot of that resonates with the public because people think there is just a lot of free giveaways in Congress,” said Chellie Pingree, president of the ethics advocacy group Common Cause. “A lot of this is sort of skirting the issue of how campaign funds are shaping the legislative process.”
Ms. Pingree noted that the scandals of the last Congress arose from actions that were illegal but went undetected for years because of lack of oversight. “Are they going to enforce the rules?” she asked.
Spurred by the election results, several Democrats are pushing bigger changes. Mr. Obama, for example, is proposing an independent Congressional ethics enforcement commission.
Ideally, the way this works is that the two parties engage in a virtuous cycle of "can you top this?" on the subject of process reform. There's almost no chance, however, that the Republicans will play: corporate corruption is their main raison d'etre, and it probably would (and hopefully will) take a succession of "thumpins" before the erstwhile Party of Lincoln shakes free of its many negative norms and associations (I'll probably write more about this soon). McCain might pick up the reform mantle--but it looks to me like his Republican partisanship has long since trumped his better instincts for change, and the only reforms he's now interested in are ones that just would happen to hurt the Democrats more than his own party (like banning 527s).
One wonders if this could be Obama's window. Between a possible emergence as the new champion of ethics reform and his overtures to some of the less aggressive and dogmatic elements on the Religious Right, the senator is staking out some very interesting ground. I'm personally more interested in the destination--cleaning up Congress--than the journey; but if the senator's own ambition is fueling his push for more thoroughgoing reform, that's pretty much how the Founders drew it up.