Senators Norm Coleman, Minnesota Republican, and Ben Nelson, Nebraska Democrat, think they've found a way to solve the ethics problem and restore public confidence in Congress. They have introduced legislation to create a bipartisan and independent commission, not unlike the 9-11 Commission, to recommend reforms to strengthen congressional ethics and make Congress more transparent. Their measure would not allow any sitting member of Congress on the panel, though former members could participate.
In a telephone interview, Coleman said, "Washington is the only place where people break the law and then call for changing the law." He said that while a commission "won't get rid of bad behavior" in Congress, it could hold more members accountable.
The proposed Commission to Strengthen Confidence in Congress (CSCC) would be charged, among other things, with evaluating and reporting the effectiveness of current ethics requirements (obviously not too good given revelations about serial lobbyist Jack Abramoff) and establishing minimum standards for official travel for members and staff.
Members should be required to get advance approval for travel from a special oversight panel specifically established for this purpose. Vouchers should be submitted along with "time cards" that show how many hours will be devoted to work and how many to play. Few would object to a member playing a round of golf as long as he, or she, puts in a full day's work and recreation isn't the main purpose of the trip.
A Web site specifically dedicated to congressional travel and gifts should be established so that the public can have access to the information. Transparency, full disclosure, sunshine laws and other efforts to help us keep track of what elected representatives are doing with our money will bolster public confidence.
If the Coleman-Nelson "reform" proposal is allowed to go the way of previous cleanup efforts, and is simply a means by which Congress lets a scandal blow over so it can get back to business as usual, the cynicism will deepen and the Republicans might find themselves in greater danger in the fall elections than they are now.
Cal Thomas is co-author (with Bob Beckel) of the book, "Common Ground: How to Stop the Partisan War That is Destroying America".
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