After months of bitter wrangling, Congress approved a landmark ethics bill Friday that for the first time puts tight controls on the paid lobbying activities of former House and Senate members, as well as their top aides.
The legislation, which passed 347 to 7 in the House and by voice vote in the Senate, would prevent outgoing members of Congress and staff from contacting former colleagues on any governmental business for one year. President Reagan is expected to sign the bill into law.
“Nobody has a God-given right to ‘cash in’ on their public service,” said Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), who helped fashion a last-minute compromise on the legislation. “This bill will send a strong signal to the public that their government is not for hire.”
Bans Ties to Trade Talks
A key provision of the bill also provides that no executive branch officials could represent, aid or advise anyone in connection with trade negotiations for 12 months. Former congressional and executive branch officials would also be prevented from lobbying for a foreign government or advising a foreign entity for one year.
However, in a significant loophole, former members of the legislative and executive branches of government would not be prevented from lobbying the other branch. For example, a former senator who went to work as a lobbyist for a developer would not be blocked from contacting the secretary of housing and urban development or any other Administration official.
Support for an ethics bill began growing this year after the indictments and convictions of former White House officials Lyn Nofziger and Michael K. Deaver. Nofziger was convicted of violating lobbying restrictions that currently apply only to the executive branch. Deaver was convicted of lying about his lobbying activities to a federal grand jury and a congressional committee. Both men complained that the rules were vague and confusing.
Sponsors of a tougher ethics law said the guidelines restricting lobbying by executive branch officials should be tightened. But they also contended that Congress should put its own house in order and, for the first time, subject itself to the same tough standards.
“We want people here to be above suspicion,” said Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), who developed the House version of the legislation. “Clearly, there should be a one-year cooling off period” before outgoing members lobby their colleagues, he added.
Frank noted that the bill would not bar former congressional officials from any other paid lobbying activity. He also said outgoing members could work as advisers to firms having an interest in legislation, so long as they themselves did not contact members of Congress.
Despite the lopsided House vote, Frank conceded that the ethics measure was not popular with his colleagues. The bill “has got a lot of votes, but very little support,” he said. “People grumble about this, but a majority is behind it.”
During a brief debate, several critics laced into the measure, calling it an overreaction.
“This bill should be called the Immaculate Conception Act of 1988,” Rep. Douglas H. Bosco (D-Occidental) said. “It was conceived of no real sin and born of no real wrongdoing. No evidence exists that any real wrongdoing (by former members of Congress) exists.”
Bosco, who voted against the measure, added that many members of Congress must “maintain two households and can’t make it on the money they make each year.” That dilemma as well as the free trips and other gratuities given to officeholders are the “real abuses” that Congress should remedy, he said.
Earnings a Key Element
Final approval of the ethics bill has been held up for months while House and Senate negotiators wrangled over the rules that should cover congressional staff aides. They finally agreed that the law would only apply to those earning $72,000 a year or more. The bill would bar those individuals--as well as top committee staff members--from lobbying former bosses or members of their staffs for one year after leaving public service.
In other provisions, the legislation maintained the rule barring members of the executive branch from lobbying on any issue in which they had a “personal and substantial” involvement. But, in a significant change, Congress agreed to block high-ranking White House officials, Cabinet members and other executive branch employees from lobbying anyone in their own agency or any other high-level official in the executive branch for a year.
Levin said the law was broadened to prevent former Administration officials from claiming, as Nofziger and Deaver did, that the law only barred them from lobbying colleagues in their immediate White House office or agency.
Penalties for a “knowing and willful” violation of the law would range from a fine of up to $250,000 or up to two years in jail. The attorney general could also elect to pursue civil damages against violators.