Democrats Pledge to Raise Ethics; Experts Await

Democrats taking over in Congress are promising a new era of commitment to higher ethical standards, including in their appropriation of funds and their relationships with lobbyists. But voters have heard such pledges before — and advocates of cleaner government are eager to see the details.

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

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And I'm Michele Norris.

When Democrats take power in Congress in January, there are plenty of campaign promises to try to make good on. Among them ending what they dubbed the culture of corruption. But it may not be easy.

As NPR's Peter Overby reports living of to a slogan could be a lot harder than coining one.

PETER OVERBY: The culture of corruption slogan did work out pretty well, in part, because of all those examples. Republican Congressman Randy Cunningham was behind bars for bribery. Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff was ratting out lawmakers to the FBI. Congressman Bob Ney coughing a plea, House Republican leader Tom DeLay quitting under indictment. And of course, there's Mark Foley and his salacious messages to House pages.

Democrats laid out a plan for honest leadership and open government. And emerging from the Democratic Caucus yesterday, speaker-designate Nancy Pelosi made the pledge again.

Representative NANCY PELOSI (Democrat, California): We will have a rules package that will hold this Congress to the highest ethical standards. We will break the link between lobbyists and legislators.

OVERBY: But that's a link that can be defined several different ways.

Mr. PAUL MILLER (American League of Lobbyists): You can't say it and then call us the next day and ask us for campaign contributions.

OVERBY: This is Paul Miller, a lobbyist and also president of the American League of Lobbyists. His one word description for the reform package -hypocritical.

Mr. MILLER: To my knowledge, Jack Abramoff didn't hold a gun to anybody's head and say take my gift, take my meals and come to my restaurant.

OVERBY: But look at how the reform package would treat lobbyists versus lawmakers. Lobbyists would come under a new office of public integrity. It could investigate and even recommend prosecutions. But House members' ethics would still be enforced by the House Ethics Committee, a panel with a record charitably described as spotty.

Mary Wilson of Albuquerque, president of the League Of Women Voters, says voters will notice whether the Democrats take ethics reform seriously or try to skate pass it.

Ms. MARY WILSON (League Of Women Voters): They should be looking at doing this for their own protection.

OVERBY: But the reform effort has plenty of skeptics in and out of Washington. Julian Zilizer is a history professor at Boston University who's studied congressional ethics over the years. He says the Democrats could claim success if they just diminish the culture of corruption.

Professor JULIAN ZILIZER (Boston University): I don't think they're going to be able to ultimately end it. You know, a lot of this revolves around the tower of private money in politics. And as long as private money is still important to legislators for campaigns, lobbyists would still be important. And you know, bad things are going to happen.

OVERBY: Pelosi also has some other ethics decisions to make. She probably won't have to deal with Congressman Bill Jefferson of New Orleans. He may well lose his seat in a runoff election next month. Pelosi pushed Jefferson off the Ways and Means Committee earlier this year after it turned out that FBI agents found $90,000 in his freezer.

But there's also the touchy matter of Alcee Hastings of Florida. He may be in line to chair the Intelligence Committee. As a federal judge in the early 1980s, Hastings was charged with soliciting bribes, then acquitted in court, but then impeached and removed by Congress. The case took an even stranger twist in the late ‘90s. Some of the testimonies at trial was found to be tainted, but Congress never reexamined the impeachment.

And then there's Alan Mollohand of West Virginia. He's next in line to chair the Appropriations Subcommittee that writes the budgets for the Justice Department and FBI. Last spring, the FBI subpoenaed records of several non-profits who have ties to Mollohand, the case involves questions of appropriations earmarked and real estate deals.

Mollohand's office says the FBI has never contacted him. A spokesman for Pelosi says it's far to early to talk about subcommittee chairmanships. But for now, it seems that Mollohand is on track to take charge of the very panel that oversees the budget of the agency that would have to prosecute any congressional scandal, assuming we still have those.

Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington.

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