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Ethics plan protects 'pay-to-play' system

A year ago, Nancy Pelosi lifted a lot of hearts with a victory speech capping the Democrats' return to the House majority.

Slated to become the first woman speaker of the House, the California grandmother promised on election night 2006 to end the Republicans' "culture of corruption" and create the "most ethical" Congress in history.

On Thursday, her task force on congressional ethics floated its long-delayed reform proposal. Unfortunately, the new Democratic ethics plan would preserve the bipartisan truce that puts special interest money before the interests of the people.

The Democratic plan protects the "pay-to-play" system perfected by the GOP, supports the perpetual House incumbency and perpetuates the power of crooked, veteran House bosses.

Pelosi's task force chairman, Rep. Michael Capuano, D-Mass., said it will be formally introduced early next month.

It creates an Office of Congressional Ethics, a grand-sounding innovation that adds a layer of bureaucracy to the existing House Ethics Committee. This office can initiate "reviews" of congressional conduct. Great. The devil, as usual, is in the details.

The office will not have subpoena power. More importantly, the office will not hear complaints brought by outside entities or people. And the House Ethics Committee will not hear charges brought by outsiders, as the Senate does.

"It's significant the new office will not 'investigate' but merely 'review' situations," said Meredith McGehee, policy director of Campaign Legal Center, which has been pushing hard for real reform.

The center was among several groups that protested last winter when Pelosi turned to Republican Minority Leader John Boehner of Ohio to help form a task force, instead of coming up with a plan of her own. Boehner was on the fringes of the gay House pages scandal that helped turn the tide for the Democrats last year.

"The months wasted haggling over new ethics rules have been all for naught," said Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, or CREW. "Given that the new Office of Congressional Ethics will not accept complaints from outsiders nor have subpoena power, in effect, the song remains the same."

CREW's communications director, Naomi Seligman Steiner, noted that it was Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., who in 1997 successfully offered a floor amendment to forbid the Ethics Committee from hearing outside complaints.

In January, Pelosi wanted to make Murtha House majority leader, but her caucus balked because of a corruption cloud hanging over Murtha and because of what many see as his bullying ways as chairman of the House Defense Appropriations Committee.

CREW named Murtha as among the 22 "most corrupt" members of Congress.

Murtha's business is the "earmark," a semi-secret clause slipped into a big appropriations bill. It almost never shows up at a hearing, is usually opposed by the executive branch it is supposed to benefit and almost always results in a reciprocal campaign contribution.

Murtha slipped two of Pelosi's earmarks into his most recent defense spending bill. It is this cycle of earmarks and campaign contributions that keeps bosses in power, and reinforces their sway over colleagues.

Taxpayers for Common Sense estimates that Murtha passed earmarks worth $600 million in four years, mostly under Republican House rule.

By my count, this year's defense spending measure contains 39 Murtha earmarks worth $98.2 million.

McGehee says Pelosi should tell Capuano "thanks," scrap his report and come up with a strong new ethics office. Without a powerful outside agency with broad powers, the highly touted ethics rules passed by the House last winter are hollow.


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