ARLINGTON, Va. -- When one is "converted," people look for changes in behavior that testify to a transformation of heart and mind.
The new House Democratic majority has announced its conversion on matters of institutional and individual ethics.
Now comes the watching and waiting to measure the depth of its sincerity. Initial signs leave room for cautious optimism, or pessimism, depending on one's faith in people who have created the problem to provide the solution. Liken it to how much trust one might place in an embezzler who is put in charge of bank security, or a serial liar who is asked to devise an honor code.
House Democrats touted their ethics reform package, which, among other things, requires lawmakers to attach their names to the "earmarks," also known as pork, that they slip into spending and tax measures. In addition, members would be required to reveal whether they had any personal interest in the measure.
Suspicion as to whether Democrats, who have long engaged in bipartisan pork-barrel spending with Republicans, are serious about going on the wagon was quickly raised when New York Democrat Charles B. Rangel, the new chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, said, "You have to assume that everything we have done is subject to a revisit. ... These things are not locked in cement."
The earmark legislation is also tied to the Democrats' proposed "pay as you go" rule that would keep the House from adding to the deficit with new tax cuts or entitlement spending without offsetting them with spending cuts or tax increases. Republicans see that as stealth tax increases.
The New York Times reported that the earmark measure "could prevent the kind of corruption that led to several big scandals in recent years, including former Representative Randy Cunningham's sale of earmarks to government contractors for cash, gifts and campaign contributions." Not exactly.
According to Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW), which has published a "Guide to Earmark Reform," "Projects such as digitization of Department of Defense manuals, which helped land former Rep. Randy 'Duke' Cunningham in jail, would not require sponsor identification because the funds were directed to DOD, not a specific company. In that situation, the company that eventually received funding for the project had bribed Cunningham."
This is not the only potential loophole in the ethics rules change. "The ultimate goal of earmark reform," says CAGW, "should be the elimination of all pork-barrel projects from the federal budget." That is not likely to happen, so CAGW proposes the ultimate in transparency and accountability in order to reduce the number and overall cost of such projects.
CAGW says the House's definition of an earmark falls short in two ways. In addition to the one mentioned above regarding the Pentagon and Mr. Cunningham, "It omits projects earmarked for more than one state and those designated for federal agencies. For example, the fiscal 2006 Agriculture Appropriations Bill includes $6,435,000 for wood utilization research in Alaska, Idaho, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oregon, Tennessee, Washington and West Virginia. The House rules would not require the identification of a sponsor of this earmark."
Republicans will have little credibility advocating that these or tougher rules be placed in cement. They have been at the spending trough as much as Democrats. Neither will President Bush have much influence calling, as he has, for spending reforms, since he has refused to veto a single spending measure.
The Senate this week considers revising its ethics rules. Don't look for the "king of pork," West Virginia Democrat Robert C. Byrd, to take the anti-pork pledge. That would be like asking Britney Spears to "convert" to responsible behavior. Any real reform will be up to "we the people." A good beginning can be found in the CAGW guide.
Cal Thomas' syndicated column usually appears Wednesdays in The Sun. His e-mail is email@example.com.
Steve Chapman's column will return Monday.