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Congress Drops the Ball on Meaningful Ethics Reform

DANIEL SCHORR: The day of sentencing of super-lobbyist Jack Abramoff may be as good a day as any to review progress towards ethics reform in Congress.

Briefly, not much.

MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

NPR's senior news analyst, Daniel Schorr.

SCHORR: The bi-partisan Congressional Ethics Committees are virtually missing in action, and the proposal in the Senate to establish an outside Office of Public Integrity was rejected by a substantial margin.

The Senate today, by a lopsided 90 to eight vote, passed a bill that emphasizes disclosure, rather than new prohibitions on lobbyist contacts. In the House, there have been some half-way gestures towards reigning in lobbyist-paid meals, trips, and sports tickets, but the restriction on travel has a sunset provision, expiring at the end of the session of Congress.

Thanks to some vigorous lobbying by the Restaurant Association, lobbyist-paid meals would not be banned, but they would be capped at $50.00 per meal. Gifts for lobbyists would not be banned, but they would be subject to disclosure.

One irony in the current flurry of quasi-reform is that the Senate appears ready to enact restrictions on internet gambling, provisions that Abramoff was paid by his casino clients to oppose.

One interesting change, the Senate has voted to end a practice by which a single signature acting in secret could block a piece of pending legislation, a potent weapon in the hands of a legislator exercising his veto on behalf of a well-heeled lobbyist.

Will these half-way changes change the picture that the public has of Congress as a corrupt institution whose name is Jack Abramoff and Randy Duke Cunningham? The answer to that may come in next November's election.

This is Daniel Schorr.

BLOCK: Congressmen, staffers, former members of the administration. Find out who's been linked to Jack Abramoff. Check out an interactive feature on our website, NPR.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Daniel Schorr
Daniel Schorr passed away on Friday, July 23, 2010. See an obituary, photo gallery and an archive of Schorr's commentaries for NPR.