WASHINGTON – House Speaker Nancy Pelosi promised four years ago that Democrats would lead "the most honest, most open, most ethical Congress in history."
But as her party defends its record with its majority in jeopardy, two prominent Democrats await ethics trials. Two other party members gave Congressional Black Caucus Foundation scholarships to relatives. Most importantly, lobbyists, corporations and special interests still have unimpeded ways to buy access to members of Congress.
Take House Majority Whip James Clyburn's annual charity golf tournament, which provides college scholarships for needy students in his South Carolina district and funds the endowment he established at South Carolina State University.
EDITOR'S NOTE — An occasional look at government promises and how well they are kept.
It sounds like a worthy cause, but it's a stretch to believe that national companies which sponsored the event randomly chose students in the 6th District of South Carolina as a priority for charitable giving.
"It really doesn't matter what the money is used for," says Fred Wertheimer, who heads the Congress-watching private group Democracy 21. "If you're asked to provide a large amount of money for something that is important to a member, you are doing a financial favor for the member. That benefit buys influence."
Wertheimer credits Pelosi with going far beyond previous speakers, saying she changed what Democrats once called a "culture of corruption" under Republican rule.
Yet, her reforms didn't touch access-buying opportunities like campaign fundraisers, corporate-sponsored events for informal lawmaker organizations, or sports tournaments held by members' charities.
The Sunlight Foundation, which tracks congressional fundraising events, has identified more than 9,500 since President George W. Bush signed the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act in September 2007. The law embodies reforms cited by Pelosi as proof that she kept her promise to "drain the swamp" of congressional corruption.
Pelosi was instrumental in winning increased disclosure of lobbyists' spending and contributions; a ban on lobbyist gifts to lawmakers; the end of cheap rides on corporate jets; curtailment of privately financed trips that often amounted to free vacations; creation of an independent ethics office; and the identification of sponsors of "earmarks" — congressional spending given to favored recipients, who often returned the favor with campaign contributions.
And while it may be just good fortune, Democrats can claim that another Jack Abramoff has not arisen on their watch. The influence-peddling lobbyist, who showered lawmakers and their staffs with favors and eventually went to prison, had strong ties to Republicans.
One Pelosi reform failed miserably when given a reality check.
An Associated Press review last year found that few members of Congress were disclosing that lobbyists were helping them raise campaign cash — despite a provision of the Honest Leadership law designed to shed light on the ties between lawmakers and the capital's influence brokers.
Pelosi spokesman Brendan Daly said Democrats "have taken major steps to fulfill this promise, including passing the landmark Honest Leadership and Open Government Act in 2007 and creating the independent, bipartisan Office of Congressional Ethics in 2008. As we consider further reform, we will examine updating these laws and the bipartisan comprehensive campaign finance reform law passed in 2002."
Pelosi favors public financing of campaigns, but hasn't had the votes to pass it. If she remains speaker, she'll face a major test early next year on retaining the independent House Office of Congressional Ethics, which she calls a success story.
The office, which conducts preliminary ethics investigations, is run by a board of non-legislators. Its investigations have irritated enough members that several want to curb its authority or eliminate it. Republicans almost succeeded in blocking creation of the office in 2008, as Pelosi won a 207-206 procedural vote to have the matter considered.
Republicans, trying to win back control of the House, now cite ethics charges against Reps. Charles Rangel of New York and Maxine Waters of California to argue that the speaker broke her word to run the most ethical Congress.
Rangel, former chairman of the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee, is charged with financial and fundraising misconduct, and has acknowledged some ethical lapses.
Waters, a senior member of the Financial Services Committee, is contesting allegations that she sought federal aid for a bank where her husband is an investor.
Republicans on the House ethics committee demanded Tuesday that the Rangel and Waters trials be completed before the November elections.
Recent news reports also revealed that Reps. Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Texas, and Sanford Bishop, D-Ga., awarded Congressional Black Caucus Foundation scholarships to relatives. The foundation has close ties to the Congressional Black Caucus, although it is run separately as a tax-exempt organization.
And last week former lobbyist Paul Magliocchetti, who helped defense clients secure government contracts, pleaded guilty to illegally funneling more than $380,000 in campaign contributions to House members controlling the Pentagon's budget. Three top Democrats he worked with — Jim Moran of Virginia, Peter Visclosky of Indiana and the late John Murtha of Pennsylvania — directed $137 million in defense contracts to the lobbyist's clients.
While no member of Congress has been criminally charged or found to have violated House rules, outside ethics watchdog groups have criticized the lawmakers' conduct.
Melanie Sloan, director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington and a former Democratic congressional aide, said Pelosi has brought about the culture change she promised.
She cites the end of the Republican "K Street Project," used by former GOP leader Tom DeLay of Texas to pressure lobbying firms to hire Republicans who then were given access to top officials.
Republicans are dismissive. Rep. Dan Lungren, the former attorney general of California, said many of the ethics improvements Pelosi takes credit for were the result of bipartisan agreements on the 2007 Honest Leadership law. Republicans were first with the idea of identifying sponsors of special-interest spending, he said.