Both Democrat-controlled houses of the new 110th Congress passed ethics legislation last week that includes major provisions designed to curb improper influence on the part of lobbyists. The reforms put a lid on gifts from lobbyists and greater transparency into the legislative process. These are positive steps. But we have seen this picture before. Each time a bunch of legislators wind up resigning or going to prison, as several have done in the past few months, things get shaken up in the ethics file. There was a major ethics push in the face of the House post office scandal in the 1980s. Before that, ethical transgressions reached up to claim then House Speaker Carl Albert. Newt Gingrich also resigned the Speaker’s chair under an ethics cloud in the 1990s that brought promises of reform.
Canada’s parliament has been nudging toward tougher ethical rules, too. Several years ago, I was invited to appear before a committee of the House of Commons in connection with a new bill to register lobbyists. I threw a bit of a curve when I suggested there needed to be a code of conduct for members of parliament and senators, not just lobbyists. It took a decade or so for them to actually get on with it.
Of course, you can never really legislate an end to undue influence. The fact remains that the ordinary citizen has zero chance of being able to call up and actually speak with their elected representatives; those who lobby for special interests and spend time in the same social surroundings as lawmakers tend to have their calls put through.
In the months and years to come, there will be new scandals that reveal weaknesses in the system –and in the character of elected officials. More heads will roll and still tougher reforms will be demanded. When changes occur, lawmakers will be applauded again, as they are now, for taking action to stem ethical lapses that never should have occurred in the first place. But it’s good to know that there are periods when the politicians at least make some effort to catch up to where the people have long since been in the standards of conduct they expect their elected officials to follow.