Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Ethics reforms move slowly ahead

It's taken some watchdogging and prodding, but Democrats are still mostly doing the right thing on ethics reforms -- for now.

Sure, there's Jim DeMint (second item) holding up the conference session on the two main ethics bills -- but that's not the Democrats' fault.

And members on both sides of the aisle are balking at creating an independent ethics watchdog with teeth, for fear it could be used as a sledgehammer by political opponents.

But in general they're moving along. For example, The ill-considered plan by Rep. David Obey to keep all earmarks under wraps until the last minute has been scrapped under the weight of resounding criticism. Not only is each project listed in the bill to which it is attached -- along with its sponsor and some details -- but Obey also adopted another suggestion I made: to limit the number of earmarks. He only cut them in half, where I was suggesting cutting the number by 90 percent or more. But it's a start.

The other criticism is Republican complaints that Democrats are using procedural rules to stifle Republican efforts, violating their promises to be more evenhanded. I don't know enough about the details there to render a judgement, but take the complaints with a grain of salt. For one thing, it's an even chance that the Republicans are simply trying to make political hay out of it. For another, the specific measures they object to -- no late amendments accepted, a limit on the number of amendments that can be brought to the floor for a vote -- seem like reasonable compromises to keep the wheels of Congress turning. But if someone with more knowledge of the parliamentary workings of Congress cares to weigh in, I'm all ears.

The biggest problem facing the ethics provisions is time. It's running out, and the slowdown on ethics measures threatens to derail other important legislation that's still in the pipeline. At some point Democrats will have to prioritize their agenda -- and the ethics bills may be thrown overboard to make room for other things.

That last link, by the way, is an excellent analysis of the workings of Congress, the Democratic agenda, and the pros, cons and prospects of pursuing various pieces of it. I heartily recommend that you read the whole thing.

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