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Congress needs a nanny

Marketplace Staff Jan 4, 2007

KAI RYSSDAL: President Bush stayed out of the spotlight to let the Democrats enjoy their day in the sun. So Senator John McCain was the public face of the Republican Party today. And he did some public hand-wringing.McCain said he was sad about Republicans losing their majority, but that the party had valued power over principle and paid the price for it.

Commentator Jeff Birnbaum says despite all their promises to clean up Washington, Democrats still value power over principle too.

JEFF BIRNBAUM: It’s time that Congress had a nanny.

Voters punished the Republicans in charge for failing to clean up their act last year and brought in a new Democratic majority hoping for a change in direction. Predictably, the Democrats say they’re different than the GOP and swear that they really will clean house.

Well, I doubt it. Human nature makes it hard if not impossible for people to discipline themselves, especially when there are so few rewards for doing it. Congress is the same way. It refuses to do anything significant about regulating its own ethics and legislative excesses — like pork barrel spending — even though that’s exactly what voters want.

The ethics and lobbying laws making their way through Congress now are riddled with loopholes and mostly impact lobbyists, not lawmakers.

Lobbyists would have to increase their public disclosures; lobbyists would be barred from giving gifts, like sports tickets and meals.

Lawmakers who become lobbyists would have to wait a little longer before they can go back and beg their old colleagues for favors.

But the burden on lawmakers themselves? Not much. In fact, legislators have repeatedly refused to adopt a proposal that would crack down on their own behavior: an Office of Public Integrity. This would-be watchdog — a favorite of Democratic superstar Barack Obama — would be empowered to conduct investigations into lawmakers’ behavior and bolster the otherwise anemic efforts of the ethics committees.

But no. The public integrity office that’s most seriously being discussed would police only lobbyists’ disclosure reports and leave lawmakers alone.

Clearly that isn’t enough. Voters expect more than that. If not, then maybe lawmakers should think of hiring a nanny for themselves. They need one — or an Office of Public Integrity that’s equal to its name.

RYSSDAL: Jeff Birnbaum is a columnist for The Washington Post.

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