STEVE INSKEEP, host:
People on Main Street and many other streets have a low opinion of Congress right now. Lawmakers' approval ratings are in the low 20s. The Democrats who won control of Congress in 2006 wanted to restore trust in government. And they campaigned against corruption. They spoke of draining the swamp. Almost three years later, NPR's Andrea Seabrook went to see if the swamp is drained. She needed boots.
ANDREA SEABROOK: When Democrats took over the majority in the House, the newly minted speaker, Nancy Pelosi, promised to lead, quote, "the most honest, most open and most ethical Congress in history."
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer says they've made real progress.
Representative STENY HOYER (Democrat, Maryland): We take very seriously the issue of congressional ethics; which is why, back in 2007, we adopted strengthened rules for ethical oversight and ethical conduct.
SEABROOK: Democrats banned gifts from lobbyists. They prohibited House members from flying on corporate jets and put in place new reporting requirements for lobbyists. They had open discussions about how the Ethics Committee, long stalled by partisan warfare, could be reformed.
Democrats created something called the Office of Congressional Ethics. It's kind of an outside ethics board, made up of mostly former members of Congress and staff. It can take in ethics complaints from outside Congress, investigate allegations and recommend action to the Ethics Committee; an additional level of eyes, Hoyer calls it.
Rep. HOYER: So all of that, I think, was an indication that we view the ethical conduct of the people's business as critically important to their confidence and, very frankly, to the quality and substance of the policies that we adopt.
SEABROOK: So, is the new ethics process working?
Ms. MELANIE SLOAN (Executive director, CREW): No, the ethics process remains as broken as ever.
SEABROOK: Congressional watchdog Melanie Sloan.
Ms. SLOAN: And I think the main evidence you have for that is that no one has been disciplined by the House Ethics Committee, even since the new Office of Congressional Ethics formed.
SEABROOK: Sloan runs the nonpartisan group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.
There are all kinds of ethical problems just hanging out there, she says. Pennsylvania Democrat John Murtha is under federal investigation for allegedly trading government earmarks for campaign contributions. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: There has been no public announcement of a federal investigation of Representative Murtha. Rep. Murtha is closely tied to several officials and defense contractors who are under federal investigation.]
California Republican Jerry Lewis has had similar allegations against him for years. He and Murtha are both top members of the powerful Appropriations Committee. Democrat Maxine Waters of California is under investigation for pushing government bailout money to a bank her husband had a stake in.
Sloan says another good example of the dysfunctional ethics system is the investigation of New York Congressman Charles Rangel. It's dragged on for more than a year, even as new problems are uncovered - that he didn't pay taxes on some of his income, that he didn't report all his assets on financial disclosure forms.
Democratic leader Hoyer says, actually, all this shows the new ethics system is working.
Rep. HOYER: In the Rangel case, they've just issued additional subpoenas for individuals and for documents. I think they're doing a very thorough investigation of that. These take time.
SEABROOK: Some of the allegations against Rangel wouldn't have come to light without a functioning ethics committee, he says.
Meredith McGehee is another ethics watchdog. She is at the Campaign Legal Center. One big problem with the Ethics Committee, she says, is its secrecy. The members absolutely refuse to talk about any of its business, including who they're investigating and for what. McGehee he says, yes, privacy is important, but�
Ms. MEREDITH MCGEHEE (Policy Director, Campaign Legal Center): This black hole concept is just really poisoning the ability of the congressional ethics process to have credibility with the public.
SEABROOK: Ethics allegations have become the easiest rock to throw at the other party, McGehee says. And if there's no way for voters to distinguish serious problems from simple partisanship, then they will just assume all politicians are corrupt.
Ms. MCGEHEE: And in a democracy, that notion is very dangerous. That undermines the very fabric of being able to get a participation level in democracy that we need to have it function. So that's why, to me, the ethics issue, in the end, is such a critical issue. It goes to the fundamental ability of our democracy to thrive.
SEABROOK: The rule of law is part of what makes the United States what it is, McGehee says. And when the Congress can't mirror that by setting its own standards of conduct and policing them, then there's no reason for citizens to trust members of Congress, and little reason to vote.
Andrea Seabrook, NPR News, the Capitol.
(Soundbite of music)