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Congress Ethics Office Rejected

Times Staff Writers

A key Senate committee Thursday rejected a proposal to create a new agency to oversee congressional ethics, dealing a major blow to efforts to give outsiders at least some authority to police lawmakers’ conduct.

The plan to set up an independent Office of Public Integrity was derailed by the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee -- despite its sponsorship by the panel’s chairwoman, Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, and the ranking Democrat, Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut.

The measure’s 11-5 defeat underscored the growing resistance on Capitol Hill to overhauls advocated by government watchdog groups and some lawmakers after recent political scandals. Rather than significantly rewrite their rules for conduct, most members of Congress appear to favor more extensive reporting requirements -- mostly for lobbyists.

The defeat of the ethics office proposal sparked sharp criticism.

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“We are really disappointed,” said Mary Boyle, spokeswoman for the citizens’ lobbying group Common Cause. “For Congress to produce any kind of credible reform, they need an enforcement mechanism.”

The proposal called for an office, independent of the existing House and Senate ethics committees, that could initiate investigations of lawmakers. The office staff was to have been led by a director hired by congressional leaders; its findings would have been turned over to the congressional ethics panels, whose members would then have decided on any penalties.

In Thursday’s debate, several senators balked at ceding even limited oversight to an outside agency.

“There is no need to reinvent the wheel,” said Sen. George V. Voinovich (R-Ohio), who led opposition to the proposal. “The Office of Public Integrity is a solution in search of a problem.”

Voinovich is chairman of the Senate Ethics Committee, as well as a member of the domestic security panel.

After the latter committee scotched the ethics office provision, it approved legislation that would require lobbyists to provide more detailed reports on their activities, to file that information more frequently, and to disclose the money they spend to promote their clients’ interests.

The bill also would require lobbyists to list annually the campaign donations and fund-raising events in which they take part.

Penalties for violations of these rules would be increased. And the “cooling off” period -- the time a former senator must wait before lobbying his onetime colleagues -- would be extended to two years from one year.

The bill is expected to be combined with one passed this week by the Senate Rules Committee, then sent to the Senate floor as early as next week.

The Rules Committee measure aims to rein in “earmarking” -- the popular legislative practice of tucking money into bills, often at the behest of lobbyists, for projects benefiting a particular state or industry. Also, senators would be required to provide more information about meals paid for by lobbyists or travel financed by outside groups. And the lawmakers would be prohibited from accepting gifts from lobbyists.

The House is expected to take up an overhaul of its ethics rules this month, although the chamber’s Republican leaders have been struggling to reach agreement on the package’s key elements.

Boyle, the Common Cause spokeswoman, said that enacting tougher reporting requirements would not address what she termed a fundamental failure to enforce current rules.

She argued that the scandal surrounding lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who pleaded guilty in January to defrauding his clients and conspiracy to bribe members of Congress, did not arise because of a lack of ethics rules in the House and Senate.

“It was about rules that were broken and there was no enforcement for breaking them whatsoever,” Boyle said.

She said the opposition of Voinovich to the ethics office proposal was particularly disappointing.

“Voinovich is a good-government guy,” Boyle said. “He is an ally with us on a number of issues.”

Collins and Lieberman insisted that their proposal was not meant to imply that the Senate Ethics Committee had not been doing a good job -- but Voinovich and his allies were not persuaded.

Sen. Daniel K. Akaka (D-Hawaii), who was among those voting against the ethics office, noted that he had served on the ethics panel and that it was an “often thankless task” because most of its deliberations were secret.

“Unfortunately, this can create the perception that the committee is inactive,” he said.

Common Cause and other watchdogs contend that the track records for the House and Senate ethics committees demonstrate that lawmakers are reluctant to vigorously investigate one of their own.

As an alternative, they have urged Congress to follow the example set by about two dozen states that have created outside ethics panels that, with varying degrees of independence and authority, oversee the conduct of state legislators.

Collins was philosophical about the defeat of the ethics office idea.

“Reform is always very difficult, especially ... when you’re trying to reorganize Congress,” she said.

Lieberman said he would seek to bring the proposal to the Senate floor when debate opened on the other changes to ethics rules.

“To really make the reforms real requires a stronger, more independent enforcement process,” Lieberman said.

Fueling the push for ethics rule changes have been the Abramoff scandal and November’s guilty plea by then-Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham (R-San Diego) to accepting $2.4 million in bribes from defense contractors. Cunningham resigned his seat as he entered his plea.

After Abramoff’s guilty plea, GOP leaders in the House and Senate pledged to take bold steps, such as banning trips by lawmakers paid for by interest groups, to clean up Congress. But since then, such efforts have stalled.

Several lawmakers have argued that the crimes committed by Abramoff and Cunningham were isolated and that Congress should resist the temptation to make systematic changes because of them.


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