Today marks the two-year anniversary of former Congressman Chris Bell's ethics complaint against Tom DeLay. On June 15, 2004, Bell courageously filed an 18-page complaint with the Ethics Committee, charging DeLay with bribery, money laundering, and abuse of power. This complaint, which was initially met with derision and hostility, ultimately led to DeLay's admonishment by the ethics committee, and started into motion a chain of events that eventually led to DeLay's downfall.
However, although Tom DeLay is gone, his true legacy continues to thrive in the House today. DeLay's strong-arming tactics still make up the entirety of the Republican leadership's playbook, and their abuse of the rules of the House [pdf], while less noticeable to the casual onlooker than outright bribery, has done more damage to Congress as an institution than lobbyist-funded trips to Scotland ever could.
Republicans have presented the problem as solved: the House has passed a lobbying reform bill intended to limit the influence lobbyists have over members; the Ethics Committee is once again active. But dig a little deeper, and it becomes apparent that these surface fixes are nothing more than a Republican ruse: the lobbying "reform" bill was completely toothless, a farce intended to fool voters into thinking the Republican leadership was serious about ethics. In fact, in true DeLay fashion, the leadership blocked numerous Democratic amendments intended to strengthen the legislation. The Ethics Committee claims to be active, but has so far accomplished virtually nothing, despite mounting evidence in many different corruption scandals. The fact that DeLay was allowed to resign without an investigation by the Ethics Committee, despite actionable evidence in several different scandals, is a scandal in itself.
Members of Congress should be held to a higher ethical standard than merely keeping themselves out of jail--the House Code of Official Conduct says as much. The Ethics Committee is responsible for making sure members uphold this higher standard, and investigating and punishing those members who do not. Thus far, it has failed to fulfill this responsibility.
Trading influence for money, enriching one's self or one's family through legislation, and accepting expensive trips and gifts from individuals with an interest in legislation one is handling do not reflect well on the House [pdf]. More importantly, shutting down debate and amendments on important legislation, holding votes open in order to twist enough arms to pass contentious bills, and forcing lobbying firms to hire Republicans threaten the credibility of the House as an institution that acts with the interests of the American people at heart.
Two years ago, Chris Bell filed an ethics complaint. Since then, scandals have been exposed and a majority leader has fallen. The current leadership has shown itself to be incapable of moving beyond DeLay's tactics--only a fundamental change in leadership can root out corruption this deeply entrenched. The Republican leadership has six months to convince the voters that they're serious about reform. I don't think they're up to the task.