What happened? The Democratic-run Congress was doing a decent job at fulfilling its promise to become the "most ethical ever" but then someone hit the brakes. It's no fun being ethical when it interferes with secrecy, fund-raising and a general lack of enforcement.
Those are the kinds of issues that have Democrats and Republicans dragging their feet on finishing the work Democrats began with a flourish when they took control of Congress in January. And, indeed, those early measures were significant, banning meals and gifts from lobbyists to lawmakers and their employees, as well as free travel on corporate planes for House members.
But the work left undone, or accomplished reluctantly, tells an unflattering tale about the kind of abuses Congress is loathe to give up. Both Houses, for example, passed lobbying bills that would ban lawmakers from pressuring lobbyists to hire people based on their political affiliations (it's remarkable that grown-ups need a law to keep them from doing that) and require lobbyists who raise campaign money to disclose the activity.
But now a Republican senator is holding up the merging of the bills on the pretext of wanting tougher restrictions on "earmarks," spending directed to particular congressional districts.
Meanwhile, earmark reform, itself, caused problems. The head of the House Appropriations Committee, Rep. David Obey, tried at first to keep earmarks secret until after House-Senate conference committees merge the bills. But the point of reform is openness, not secrecy, as Obey found when his plan was tarred by critics. He backed off. Earmarks now are spelled out and there are fewer of them -- no thanks to the wishes of the chairman of the Appropriations Committee.
Perhaps most significantly, both parties are resisting the need to create an independent ethics commission with the authority to enforce new ethics rules. Without enforcement, what's the point?
It's human nature for people who have power to try to hang onto it. In that sense, it's no surprise Congress can't rouse itself to complete the task it pledged voters it would do.
But the fact is that the Democrats who lead Congress did make the promise, and -- not to let their opponents off the hook -- they made it after years of wretched abuse by Republicans. Both parties have an obligation to write into law rules that give the public confidence that those days are over.
That work remains undone.