The Senate took a cautious first step Tuesday toward reworking the relationship between its members and lobbyists, with a key panel recommending tougher reporting requirements rather than more sweeping changes -- such as a ban on privately funded travel.
The Senate rules committee’s reluctance to take bolder action reflected second thoughts lawmakers in both chambers of Congress have had about how far to go in addressing problems highlighted by recent ethics scandals.
In Tuesday’s debate, some senators raised practical concerns, and others focused on constitutional principles.
Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) protested that restricting use of private jets by lawmakers would unfairly hamper those such as himself who represented large, sparsely populated states.
Sen. Robert F. Bennett (R-Utah) said he feared some proposed restrictions on lobbyists would interfere with their freedom to petition the government.
“This is a constitutional right we are fooling around with,” Bennett said. “It’s a slippery slope.”
The two found a powerful ally in Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.), the rules committee chairman, who said he was determined not to go too far in revising Senate rules.
“I don’t want us to just grandstand.... Somebody’s got to deal with this in a way that deals with reality and makes sense,” Lott said.
He spoke after the committee unanimously adopted measures he sponsored that would require senators to provide more detail about meals paid for by lobbyists and travel financed by outside groups. Another provision would potentially rein in the popular legislative practice of “earmarking” -- tucking money into bills for projects benefiting a particular state or company.
Under current rules, senators and their aides are prohibited from accepting gifts or meals from lobbyists that exceed $44.99 in value. Under Lott’s bill, the lawmakers and aides could still accept food and drink from lobbyists, within that limit. But they would be barred from receiving any other gifts.
Also, in perhaps the bill’s most novel feature, senators would have to post on their websites the names of those who bought the meals, and what the tab totaled.
The bill would not ban privately funded travel, as some lawmakers and public interest groups have advocated. Instead, approval from the Senate’s ethics committee would be required before lawmakers or their staff embarked on a trip paid for by organizations, trade groups or businesses. And after such trips, lawmakers would have to issue a report about the events they attended and lobbyists who were part of the activities.
The legislation would allow senators and their staff members to continue flying on privately owned planes and paying the equivalent of first-class airfare for their seats. But such flights and who provided the aircraft would have to be reported.
The bill also would make earmarking harder by empowering any senator to object to such funding requests. It would take 60 votes in the 100-member Senate to override the objection.
Lott reached an agreement with the committee’s ranking Democrat, Sen. Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut, to not include proposals to revamp rules on financing campaigns.
Members of both parties agreed that many lobbyists had expanded their influence on Capitol Hill because of their skills at raising large amounts of money to help politicians pay for increasingly expensive campaigns. But committee members also agreed that trying to tackle the campaign finance issue would stall -- and perhaps derail -- the push for other changes.
Panel member Sen. Daniel K. Inouye (D-Hawaii) said fast action was needed because of the ethics cloud over Congress.
The public’s opinion of lawmakers is so low, he said, that “the used-car salesman is about one notch above us.... Our reputations are at stake.”
Advocates for broader change, including Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), said they were not discouraged by the bill approved by the committee. McCain praised the committee for acting quickly, and vowed to try to strengthen the bill when it came to the Senate floor -- possibly as early as next week.
On the House side, the Republican leadership is still trying to resolve differences between Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and newly elected Majority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) on such issues as a ban on privately funded travel and restrictions on earmarking.
Boehner told reporters Tuesday that the leadership was considering backing a temporary ban on privately funded travel that would last until the end of the year. The moratorium would give the House ethics committee time to consider new travel rules.
The focus on these and other possible rule changes was sparked by scandals involving Randy “Duke” Cunningham of San Diego, who resigned from the House in November after pleading guilty to bribery, and lobbyist Jack Abramoff, a close associate of several GOP congressional leaders. Abramoff pleaded guilty in January to corruption charges and is cooperating with an investigation of influence-peddling in Washington.