So thanks to Jack Abramoff, both parties are getting into the whole "let's reform Washington" spirit. It'll last about another week.
Both proposals are predictable - limit lobbyist access to congresspeople, make campaign contributions more transparent, yadda yadda yadda. None of this will do anything, though. The problems are a lot deeper than Congresspeople want to admit.
Let's take the reform of so-called "earmarks" that has become a flashpoint for the debate over congressional ethics. I'm wary of removing earmarks, for one reason: the money will still go to the administration. It will just go as a block grant to a certain department, which can then do with it as it sees fit. This opens the door for all kinds of political abuses. Do you think this administration would hesitate to funnel the appropriated money towards "red states" and battleground states at the expense of Democratic-leaning areas? Do you think a Democratic administration would hesitate to turn the tables? Earmarks give Congress control over what happens to the money it appropriates, and ensure that districts represented by the minority party don't get left behind. Besides, some earmarks are honestly necessary. (Incidentally, pork accounts for a measley 1% of our total budget.)
There is a lot of earmark abuse, however. Ted Stevens' "bridge to nowhere" is a perfect example. But it continues because people like earmarks. People may talk about how government is wasting their money with pork-barrel projects and earmarked spending, but when the chips are down, people like having their neighborhood parking lot paved with federal money. That's why the incumbent will always beat out the anti-pork reformer: the incumbent can point to an appropriations bill and say, "Look what I've brought you." The subtext being: you wouldn't have projects like this anymore if you got rid of me. The result is a bunch of horse-trading; I'll vote for your bridge if you vote for my seaport. Don't oppose my bridge or your highway gets it.
The point is that abuse of Congressional appropriations power will continue as long as people continue to expect the federal government to fund local projects. People reward their representatives for getting funding for their local highway more than they would a pork-slasher who would use the savings to cut taxes or improve social services. Congresspeople aren't addicted to pork - voters are.
Lobbying reform won't make any changes either. Congress will continue to grant legislative favors to the people bankrolling their campaigns. You need money to win an election, after all. And that's the big structural problem. There's a phrase to describe a congressperson who refuses to go to bat for his campaign contributors: out of a job. Again, the problem here is the voters. We are too easily influenced by the advertisements and the PR campaigns that money can by. Not enough people take the amount of time necessary to actually learn about the candidates and make an informed decision. This doesn't make a difference when the advertising campaigns wash each other out, as in a presidential race or a competitive senatorial race. However, when there's a distinct funding gap, it gives the better-funded candidate the opportunity to distort the identity of his/her opponent and makes the votes of the well-informed almost unimportant.
Government could try to solve the second problem by funding all candidates equally and forbidding them from using outside money. As McCain-Feingold found out, though, this gets into free-speech issues, and there's always the dilemma about what to do with third-party/independent candidates. In all honesty, the solution lies with every voter. First, reward your congressperson for concentrating on national priorities and not giving in to the temptation to get federal money for your driveway. Second, ignore campaign ads and take the time to make an informed decision about every election. If every person makes those two reforms, it will solve a lot more problems than Congress could ever hope to solve.