Cleaning up the Hill — again

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Every decade or so, Congress seems to need to self-correct. Last time around, it was the House banking and post office scandals. This time, it's the Jack Abramoff congressional bribery scandal. When you compare the two, the notion of some members stealing stamps from the House post office almost seems quaint; the Abramoff scandal involves millions of dollars spread around Washington–and it's a total embarrassment for anyone who serves in Congress.

So now comes the rush to reform. Call it the "Abramoff effect" — the idea that cleaning up the House (and the Senate) is now going to be the way to a voter's heart. And that may be true. The problem, as we've said before, is that members of the public believe the entire place is a mess, even corrupt. Congress has a dismal 27 percent approval rating. That's even worse than us journalists!

In any case, this past week we saw press conferences from both the Democrats and the Republicans trying to outmaneuver each other on reform. To be fair, there were some good ideas: severely limiting (or eliminating) congressional travel paid for by outside groups, doubling the "revolving door" statute from one year to two years (meaning that no ex-staffer or member can lobby Congress for two years after leaving Capitol Hill), banning gifts, such as meals that cost more than $20, and increasing lobbyist disclosure requirements–and strengthening the enforcement of all of these laws. It sounds great and makes a lot of sense, but it doesn't go far enough.

For all of the promises to reform, there is one practice that (so far, at least) remains virtually untouched. It's called "earmarking." That is the process by which members — often in the dead of night and without any committee oversight whatsoever–insert their own personal projects into large spending bills. It can be done to please constituents, or to please friendly and generous lobbyists–or both. There is absolutely no scrutiny, and no names are attached to any of these provisions.

It's something Sen. John McCain has been railing about for years. And it's not just about pork. It's about favors. According to the Congressional Research Service, the number of these so-called earmarks grew from 4,126 in 1994 to 14,040 a decade later. Something is rotten here. The explosion comes not because constituents are demanding more from their members of Congress; it's because lobbyists are more plentiful and more influential. There are now more than 27,000 registered lobbyists in D.C. — that's more than 50 for every member.

So what will Congress do? No matter how much it believes reform is the order of the day, it will never vote to get rid of earmarks. So here's McCain's idea: Scrutinize them in committee as you would any other spending proposal, and force members to attach their names to their pet projects. Disclosure and accountability are key. If members are serious about reform, they will reform this process. So far, they seem less than enthusiastic. Of course, McCain could shame them into it.