House Speaker Nancy Pelosi promised four years ago that Democrats would lead "the most honest, most open, most ethical Congress in history."
But as her party defends its record with its majority in jeopardy, two prominent Democrats await ethics trials. Two other party members gave Congressional Black Caucus Foundation scholarships to relatives. Most importantly, lobbyists, corporations and special interests still have unimpeded ways to buy access to members of Congress.
Take House Majority Whip James Clyburn's annual charity golf tournament, which provides college scholarships for needy students in his South Carolina district and funds the endowment he established at South Carolina State University.
It sounds like a worthy cause, but it's a stretch to believe that national companies which sponsored the event randomly chose students in the 6th District of South Carolina as a priority for charitable giving.
"It really doesn't matter what the money is used for," says Fred Wertheimer, who heads the Congress-watching private group Democracy 21. "If you're asked to provide a large amount of money for something that is important to a member, you are doing a financial favor for the member. That benefit buys influence."
Wertheimer credits Pelosi with going far beyond previous speakers, saying she changed what Democrats once called a "culture of corruption" under Republican rule.
Yet, her reforms didn't touch access-buying opportunities like campaign fundraisers, corporate-sponsored events for informal lawmaker organizations, or sports tournaments held by members' charities.