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Congress should act on ethics bills

Given its worst poll ratings in more than 25 years — with 69 percent of Americans viewing it unfavorably — Congress should jump at the chance to burnish its image by passing two ethics bills.

But although the legislation appears to be on the right path — with one bill unanimously approved by the House Judiciary Committee — neither measure is likely to make it onto the calendar anytime soon for a final vote.

The Judiciary Committee pushed past partisan rancor to pass an anticorruption bill. Bipartisan support also allowed the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs to approve a ban on insider trading by members of Congress. But committee approval is just one step.

The insider-trading bill was introduced after 60 Minutes reported on Peter Schweizer's book Throw Them All Out, which suggested that several lawmakers from both parties may have benefited from successful investments after obtaining information about specific companies through congressional testimony or related sources.

The bill seemed to be taking off before House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R., Va.) and Sen. Tom Coburn (R., Okla.) argued that Congress shouldn't do a rush job. The bill bans members and their staffs from buying or selling securities based on non-public knowledge of government actions that may influence a stock's value. Officials would be required to report transactions worth at least $1,000 within 30 days.

The anticorruption bill could clear up how the so-called Honest Services law can be applied to prosecute criminal cases. When they were U.S. attorneys, that particular statute helped Gov. Christie of New Jersey and U.S. Rep. Patrick Meehan of Pennsylvania to arrest and convict scores of corrupt politicians.

But the U.S. Supreme Court earlier this year weakened the law by ruling that it could be applied only to bribery or kickback schemes. As a result, charges were dismissed and convictions overturned across the nation against politicians accused of otherwise secretly profiting from their official roles, including former Bergen County Democratic Party Chairman Joe Ferriero.

The bill passed by the Judiciary Committee would require public officials to disclose potential conflicts of interest and explicitly prohibit them from using their positions for personal gain. It would also increase the prison term for a violation of the law and reduce the dollar amount for a bribery or theft charge to be made.

These are solid ethics reforms that will give prosecutors more of the tools they need to keep straying politicians focused on the people's interests instead of their own. But the bills need to be on the fast track to do Congress any good recovering from its dismal approval ratings.