Congressional priorities tell much about congressmen



In a reversal of folk wisdom, which holds, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it," Congress has taken something that was fixed, and it has broken it.
When the 108th Congress reconvened Jan. 7., it might have been expected to get right to work on saving Social Security or cutting taxes or addressing the budget and its looming deficits or tackling the health care crisis.
But, no, one of the first things the U.S. House of Representatives did was roll back the 1995 ethics rules that prohibited members of Congress from accepting all-expenses-paid vacations from lobbyists or elaborate gifts of expensive food.
We never thought we'd hear ourselves pining for the days of Speaker Newt Gingrich, but at least he had a sense that the peoples' House should be careful about the messages it sent.
In the House that Dennis Hastert has built, the people don't even get to see in through the windows or passed the closed doors.
The ethics rules were changed as part of a thick package adopted on the first day of the new Congress. Speaker Hastert and the leadership did not even bother to run the change through the House ethics committee. Perhaps that was an oversight, or perhaps it was tacit recognition that the committee, which had reaffirmed the old rule as recently as November, would have felt obliged to object.
Stealth operation
The 1995 rules were the subject of months of hearings and an open process. The sneakiness with which these changes were enacted is almost as disturbing as the rule changes themselves.
One rule change allows lobbyists to once again seek favor with lawmakers and their aides by catering elaborate dinners. Hastert, R-Ill., told The Washington Post: "What this is aimed at is the interns or the low-paid staff who doesn't make any money, and if someone wants to send some food in to them, they should be allowed to eat it."
How nice of Hastert to protect his low-paid staff and interns from the bane of low-paid staff and interns everywhere, pizza and burgers.
Hastert will find it harder -- make that impossible -- to explain why it was necessary to drop the rule against House members accepting fully paid trips to some of the most expensive resorts in the country. These were billed as "charity events," but were nothing more than excuses for lobbyists to pick up the bill in exchange for getting some quality time with the congressman on a golf course or at the 19th hole.
Congress should reconsider these changes, which were passed by a party-line vote, 221 to 203.

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