Americans overwhelmingly voted two weeks ago to change the culture in Washington by entrusting Democrats to lead both houses of Congress. Soon, the lame-duck rubber-stamp Republican Congress will be no more, and the legislative branch will begin to function independently again.

Sarah Royce

The incoming Democratic Congress has an ambitious agenda laid out for when it convenes next January. The Democrats want to raise the federal minimum wage to give a fighting chance of joining the middle class to Americans who earn a low wage. Even President Bush seems receptive to the idea.

Democrats also want to eliminate provisions in the Medicare statute that prevent the government from bargaining with pharmaceutical companies. The Republican Congress instituted those provisions as a favor to the pharmaceutical industry – resulting in higher prices for America’s neediest and higher profits for drug companies.

More important to students, the Democrats want to make college more affordable by increasing the maximum Pell Grant and halving interest rates on student loans. By lowering the economic barriers that keep so many young Americans out of college, Congress can expand access to higher education and help build a highly educated, skilled work force. At the very least, lower interest rates will make it easier to pay for textbooks and beer.

To ensure that their agenda becomes law, House Democrats last week unanimously elected Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) as the first female speaker of the House. Besides becoming the third highest-ranking official in the federal government, Pelosi is charged with selecting committee chairs. While selecting her leadership team, Pelosi should be mindful of the culture of corruption that ended 12 years of Republican control in Congress.

Exit polls from the midterm election showed that about 40 percent of Americans ranked the corruption in Congress as the issue that most influenced their vote. Clearly, voters were not enamored with the ethical standards practiced by Jack Abramoff’s party. It would be a mistake for Pelosi to lead the Democrats down the same path Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) chose for the Republicans – which is why she should distance herself from Rep. Jack Murtha (D-Penn.) and Rep. Alcee Hastings (D-Fla.).

Murtha, a longtime ally of Pelosi, was deeply involved in the ABSCAM scandal in the 1980s, and a recently released video shows he was clearly open to the idea of accepting money for legislative favors. The incoming Democrats seem to have gotten the message about ethics; last week they soundly rejected Murtha for house majority leader despite Pelosi’s support for him.

Hastings is the second highest-ranking Democrat on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. Yet in 1989, the House – then controlled by Democrats – impeached him for corruption and perjury over allegations he solicited a $150,000 bribe in exchange for lessening a sentence while serving as a federal judge in Florida, and a panel of the Senate removed him from office. Because the ranking Democrat on the committee – Rep. Jane Harman of California – bickers regularly with Pelosi, Hastings is the favorite for chairman. The justified outrage that would come over entrusting an impeached official with overseeing the intelligence community is the best way for Democrats to start off on the wrong foot.

Americans shouldn’t even have to suspect that the men and women elected to represent them in government would use their positions for personal gain. Ethical lapses under Republican rule, including the recent convictions of two corrupt Republican congressmen, helped Democrats win back control of Congress. The Democrats now have an opportunity to change the culture in Washington by practicing sound ethics and bringing accountability to those that do not. If voters decide Democrats are as ethically challenged as the Republicans they just threw out, it’s difficult to see how the Democrats can build support for their agenda in Congress.

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