The President’s Commission on Federal Ethics Law Reform, set up with great fanfare at the start of the Bush Administration, called Friday for a tightening of congressional ethical rules but a loosening of some measures affecting the executive branch.
Among the proposed changes certain to create opposition on Capitol Hill are a ban on members of Congress receiving honorariums for speeches and a special tax break that would eliminate capital gains taxes for senior executive officials who must sell assets to avoid conflict-of-interest charges.
Virtually all of the commission’s recommendations require congressional approval before taking effect.
‘Missed the Boat’
The commission report drew immediate fire from outside groups that had been involved in drafting government ethics rules. “The ethics commission missed the boat,” Common Cause President Fred Wertheimer charged, saying that the commission had failed “to measure up to the standards” Bush set out in his campaign and in his recent statements on ethical government.
“They fail to meet the President’s specific mandate . . . to devise ethics standards that are ‘exacting enough to ensure that officials act with the utmost integrity and live up to the public’s confidence in them,’ ” he said.
Bush plans to study the commission report during a weekend visit to Camp David, the presidential retreat in the western Maryland mountains, White House Press Secretary Marlin Fitzwater said. The President plans to meet Tuesday with the eight-member commission.
The main thrust of the report was making ethics rules “uniform” among the government’s three branches. Until now, Congress and the federal judiciary each have made their own ethics rules, while executive branch rules have been set by statute.
The commission generally recommended leaving intact existing rules for the executive branch or in some cases loosening them, while tightening rules on Congress and its staff.
The commission, for example, proposed a relaxation in some rules barring former executive officials from contacting their agencies after leaving government. In hearings, several commission members objected that the rules now are too strict and discourage many people, particularly those with scientific and technical backgrounds, from working for the government.
The commission also recommended that congressional staff members, who now are free to lobby immediately after leaving Capitol Hill, be bound by the one-year “cooling-off period” that now governs executive officials.
Similarly, the commission recommended a tight rule against government officials earning outside income, which would have almost no impact on the executive branch, where officials largely are barred from receiving money from outside sources.
But that would be a major change for Congress, where members and staff often receive speech honorariums and other forms of outside money. The rule also would reduce income for many federal judges, who supplement their judicial salaries by teaching at law schools.