Corruption and Capitol Hill

Is Congress doing all it can regarding anti-lobbying legislation and ethical reform?

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DANIEL SCHORR reporting:

There is this line from Aesop's Fables, I believe. The mountain was in labor. It gave birth to a mouse.

GONYEA: NPR's senior news analyst, Daniel Schorr.

SCHORR: Our Congress has been in labor for about four months, since the lobbying scandal broke, centered around super-lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Congress is trying to clean up its act, or at least look as though it's cleaning up its act.

The Senate passed a bill last month placing some curbs on gifts and meals from lobbyists. The House failed to act this past week on a Republican package that Representative Chris Shays, a Republican moderate, called weak and getting weaker. The bill is now expected to come up for a vote this week.

There's been painfully little in the way of real reform so far. Representative Randy Duke Cunningham took $2.4 million in bribes from defense contractors. He's going to jail. But outright bribery is a matter for the courts, not Congress, and not much in the way of ethical reform has yet come from Congress.

There is this practice called earmarking, not a felony, though maybe it should be, that is designating in an appropriations bill a certain amount of money for a pet project, like that infamous bridge to nowhere in Alaska. The best Congress has been able to manage on earmarking is a requirement that earmarks be made public.

Then there are the ways that lobbyists buy favor with such devices as free trips to nice places, like a golf course in Scotland. The best the House could manage for free travel and amenities was to require twice a year reports on funded travel.

The mystery is why public outrage has not propelled the Congress into more sweeping reform. A Pew Research Center poll said that 68 percent of Americans say corruption is important in deciding how they vote. But some members of Congress say they're not feeling much pressure from constituents on the subject of the lobbying scandal.

Lawmakers say the big issues for their constituents are in the first place soaring gas prices, then immigration, then the war in Iraq.

I am reminded of when I lived in Europe, where corruption in government in countries like Italy was simply taken for granted. I hate to think that corruption in Congress is a given, but if there is any popular passion to reform our Congress, I can't find it.

This is Daniel Schorr.

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