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What’s the holdup?

HOUSE SPEAKER Nancy Pelosi’s promise that this Congress would be “the most honest, the most open and the most ethical Congress in history” remains unredeemed because the House and Senate, both of which passed ethics reforms, haven’t reconciled their differing approaches. If a conference committee isn’t impaneled soon, objectionable practices -- including the “bundling” of campaign contributions by lobbyists -- will go on.

Bundling occurs when a lobbyist or other fundraiser solicits, collects and takes credit for a bundle of individual campaign contributions, a process that subverts the emphasis in election law on small contributions that won’t put candidates in thrall to moneyed interests. Early this year, the Senate, without undue controversy, approved ethics legislation that would require lobbyists to file reports disclosing how much they spent on bundling. A disclosure provision also was passed by the House, though only after campaign reform groups complained that the Democratic leadership was being pressured by members to go easy on bundling disclosure because it might threaten their campaign treasuries.

Almost two months later, however, a conference committee still hasn’t been formed. Most recently, the process was put on hold by Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), who wants assurances that the Senate will separately approve rules requiring disclosure by the Appropriations Committee of special-interest earmarks.

As we said last week, earmark disclosure is vital, but it should be codified in law, and that can’t occur unless the conference committee takes up the matter. That would not guarantee passage, but if the committee left earmarks disclosure on the cutting-room floor, the Senate could still mandate disclosure through a Senate rule, a less durable approach but one that would represent progress. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) should press DeMint to remove his hold and both parties should promptly appoint conferees committed to reform.

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When the conference committee does meet, it can and should produce a bill that is an improvement on what both chambers accomplished individually. It should include disclosure of bundling by lobbyists; a “revolving-door” provision that would prevent former members of Congress from lobbying their old colleagues for at least two years; bans on gifts and travel from lobbyists to members of either chamber; mandatory electronic filing of campaign finance reports and new procedures that would allow an apolitical ethics official who was not a member of Congress to refer complaints to the House and Senate ethics committees. Only then will Pelosi be able to say that the 110th Congress made good on its promise of historic openness.


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