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Ethics reform meets reality in Congress Democrats discover hurdles on both sides of the aisle as they attempt to keep a promise on ending abuses.

WASHINGTON -- House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said this Congress was going to be the "most ethical ever" -- but six months after taking power, Democrats are struggling to finish the job on ethics reform.

The House quickly passed a set of ethics rules that won praise from good-government groups, but reform advocates say most of the Democratic ethics agenda appears to be stuck in neutral. In particular:

*House Democrats have been unable to agree on creating an independent ethics watchdog.

*Republicans are holding up a lobbying reform bill in the Senate.

*Democratic efforts to reform the pork-barrel spending items known as "earmarks" have ended in both reform and confusion.

*Promises to run the House more openly and to give the minority more chances to alter legislation have dissolved into partisan acrimony.

Add it all up, and it's obvious that the new Democratic Congress has not yet fulfilled its promises on ethics reform, said Meredith McGehee, policy director of the Campaign Legal Center, a Washington good-government group.

"The slowing pace of legislation that was once touted as a potential hallmark of the 110th Congress is beginning to resemble the ill-fated reform efforts in the 109th Congress," she said.

Nevertheless, Rep. Louise M. Slaughter, R-Fairport, who led the Democrats' ethics push during the 2006 election, said reform advocates are too quick to complain.

"We haven't been here that long," said Slaughter, who added: "We really came in here to reform, and we did."

Government reform advocates praise that package of rules Slaughter helped push through the House early this year, which included a ban on meals and gifts from lobbyists to lawmakers and their employees, along with a ban on gifts of free travel on corporate planes for House members.

"I think the changes made in House ethics rules are the most significant done to date," McGehee said. "It affects what members of Congress do every day."

Slaughter acknowledged, though, that one thing remains missing from the new House ethics rules: policing.

Pelosi appointed Rep. Michael Capuano, D-Mass., to lead a bipartisan task force to decide whether -- and how -- to devise an independent ethics commission to enforce the new rules.

But that task force's May 1 deadline came and went, and when asked last week when the task force's report will be finished, Capuano said: "It will be ready when it's done."

Capuano acknowledged that many House members are reluctant to establish an independent watchdog that could accept complaints from outside groups, fearing it could lead to what he called "political abuse" of the investigative process.

>Bills held up

Similarly, a lobbying reform bill -- which also includes tougher rules on Senate behavior -- is stuck in the Senate.

Both the House and the Senate overwhelmingly passed versions of the lobbying bill, which would ban lawmakers from pressuring lobbyists to hire people based on their party affiliation. The bills also require lobbyists who raise campaign money to disclose that they are engaging in that practice, which is called "bundling.

Now, though, Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., is holding up the process of merging the two bills, saying he wants tougher reforms regarding "earmarks."

"This is a bogus excuse to block ethics reform," said Joan Claybrook, president of Public Citizen. "The Senate has approved the earmark reforms sponsored by DeMint himself, which passed by a vote of 98-0 in the ethics and lobbying reform legislation . . . that he is now blocking."

Earmark reform has, however, proved to be one of the most confounding pieces of the Democrats' ethics agenda. At first, House Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey, D-Wis., proposed keeping all earmarks secret until after House-Senate conference committees merge the bills.

That prompted an outcry from critics who said Obey was making the process even more shrouded in mystery than the previous Republican Congress had done. And that prompted Obey to reverse course, meaning Congress for the first time is spelling out the details of each such project, including its sponsor, while cutting the number of earmarks in half.

Meanwhile, the vast majority of lawmakers have rejected a growing call to disclose all the earmarks they're fighting for.

"It's just been chaotic," said Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense.

As if that were not enough for the new Democratic majority to cope with, its leadership -- and Slaughter in particular -- are under harsh Republican criticism for the way they're running the House.

As chairwoman of the powerful Rules Committee, Slaughter serves as the gatekeeper who determines the shape of the bills and amendments that reach the House floor. She complained for years that Republicans used the Rules Committee to keep minority Democrats from having any influence. Now Republicans accuse her of doing the same sort of thing.

In particular, they're furious that Slaughter won't accept late amendments and that she has refused to let unending numbers of amendments come to the floor for votes.

"There's a growing gap between the performance and the promises," said Jo Maney, spokesman for Rep. David Dreier, R-Calif., the top Republican on the Rules Committee.

>Rules divide

Slaughter said she's merely trying to keep the House in order.

"Rules has to have rules," Slaughter said of the committee, adding: "We're giving the Republicans far more amendments than they ever gave us."

And now, Republicans are giving Democrats every bit as much guff as the GOP got last year on ethics matters.

"There is a huge chasm" between what Democrats said they'd do on ethics matters and what they have done, said Michael Brady, a former aide to Rep. Thomas M. Reynolds, R-Clarence, who now heads the Majority Accountability Project, which aims to shine a light on what the Democrats in Congress are up to.

"It's absolute hypocrisy," he said.

Good-government advocates aren't going that far, but they do say that the momentum for reform appears to be fading day by day.

And Capuano, the lawmaker struggling to reach a compromise on the independent ethics commission, isn't surprised.

"I've never thought ethics as a political issue was much of an issue," he said. "So there's no political need [for reform]. The only reason to do it is because it's the right thing to do. That being the case, I think we've made some pretty good progress."

email: jzremski@buffnews.com.

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