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It came from the ethics swamp

DEMOCRATIC HOUSE leader Nancy Pelosi promised to change the culture on Capitol Hill within her first 100 hours as speaker . The Democrats were going to "drain the swamp" in Washington of fetid special-interest lobbying and influence peddling. On day one in the majority, they would start to "break the link between lobbyists and legislation." The pledges struck a chord with voters. Dozens of freshmen Democrats were elected in November on the winds of political reform.

Oh, never mind.

Now many of Pelosi's Democrats are balking at serious reforms already passed by the Senate. Last week a House committee killed a provision to extend the "time-out" period before a former legislator can lobby his erstwhile colleagues from one year to two. Representative Michael Capuano of Somerville, who is close to Pelosi but opposed the revolving-door prohibition, told a Washington Post reporter in a moment of breathtaking candor that preventing politicians from becoming lobbyists -- even if only for 24 months -- would discourage good people from seeking office. "What you are telling me is I cut off my profession," he said. Funny, we thought Capuano's profession was public servant, not lobbyist-in-training.

Capuano's statement was puzzling because Pelosi is counting on him to deliver on another reform promise; she appointed him to chair a task force aimed at creating an independent new entity to enforce ethics rules on House members. "I love the speaker," Capuano said in an interview yesterday, "but I can respectfully disagree with her."

The revolving door provision was allowed to die ostensibly to clear the way for a more significant reform: a bill that would require disclosure by lobbyists who sponsor "bundled" campaign contributions. That bill is co sponsored by Representative Martin Meehan of Lowell, who is retiring this summer. Lobbyists give far more cash to politicians through bundling operations than through direct contributions.

Yesterday, Capuano said "I have my doubts" about Meehan's proposal. He thinks even mere disclosure of lobbyist fingerprints on bundled money would spell the end to the practice. "Nobody in their right mind is going to expose themselves to that kind of hit," he said. Still, Capuano now says he will probably vote for the bundling bill when it comes up for initial approval today.

One point Capuano made yesterday is undeniable: "The root problem is the amount of money we have to raise," he said. "It's ridiculous. It's obscene." Agreed. But until the US Supreme Court allows absolute limits on campaign spending, restrictions on lobbying and fund-raising techniques are the only way to "break the links" that so offend voters.

The House vote today will show whether Capuano and other Democrats were serious about clearing the swamp -- or were just aiming a little bug spray in its direction.