Why I’m not thrilled with ethics reform

I realized I should give a bit of a follow-up to explain why I was so unenchanted with the House’s attempts at ethics reform. As a disclaimer, I haven’t read the bill, so I only have my impressions from the Times article I linked to and the list of amendments on Paul Blumenthal’s blog at Sunlight. But my feeling is this: Rules don’t make people ethical. (In NRA style, people make people ethical.) Paul summarizes one amendment:

The Castle amendment states that it is the sense of the House that the use of a family relationship by a lobbyist who is an immediate family member of a Member of Congress is inappropriate.

That calls for a saying from everyone’s youth: “Duh!”. Do we need the sense of the House to tell anyone this? And while it may be the right sentiment, for every sentiment like this there are dozens of others, and are we going to spell them all out for lobbyists and Members of Congress?

The disclosure parts of the bill are of course great steps in the right direction, but every new “no-no” or extended fine for an action that no one should have been doing in the first place makes me wonder — what exactly do Members think they’re accomplishing by telling people “don’t be unethical”.

Real reform comes from changes that stop the ethics problem before it starts: greater accountability to the public from increased flow of information (the type of recommendations we’re making our our report, and the general thrust of Sunlight’s work), a changed atmosphere within Congress (certainly not helped by Murtha’s recent so-called threat), etc.

(Oh, also- I didn’t mean that I was expecting the House to implement something from our report in the bill currently under consideration. I was thinking that if the House is taking this long to achieve what I would consider lackluster improvements, it would be a shame if they didn’t make use of our report by the end of their term.)

“Democrats Find Ethics Overhaul Elusive in House”

This article from the NYTimes is a nice summary of where the ethics and transparency debate stands today. Practically nowhere. Last fall I was thrilled that ethics and transparency had become a major issue in the elections, and when the Democrats achieved their majorities, I was thrilled again, not because the majority would be Democratic, but because there seemed to be some real motivation to make changes, to fix the many obvious things wrong about Congress. After nearly five months in power (that is, nearing one quarter of their term already over), there’s really nothing to show on the transparency front.

The Open House Project really threw the House a bone. We’ve highlighted a dozen technological changes that House can make that citizens will easily recognize as important improvements to transparency, some of the recommendations being completely noncontroversial, some being ridiculously easy to implement. We know House leaders on both sides know about the recommendations, and we’re ready to help them draft changes if they want our help. If they don’t implement even one of our recommendations, it will be a very sorry state.

The Report, Op-eds, and Links

Our report was posted here yesterday–click The Report above to read, and comment!

I’ve updated the Press page to include op-eds that have run about the project, and there’s a link to a video of the press conference there (although when I edited the page the in-page YouTube player disappeared–sorry!), and I’ve added a links page for pointers to the bills, websites, and other resources mentioned in the report.

Yesterday was a very exciting day for a lot of us. Thanks to John and Gabriela for pulling everything together, and to everyone who attended. More to come, I’m sure, about what we’ll be doing going forward from here.