Senate approves major overhaul of ethics rules

Times Staff Writer

Seeking to repair Congress’ tarred image, the Senate on Thursday overwhelmingly passed the toughest new ethics rules since the Watergate era.

The legislation is aimed at reining in the influence of special interests by forbidding lobbyists and their employers from buying meals and gifts for lawmakers and paying for their junkets.

It also seeks to end the secrecy surrounding efforts to secure federal funding for pet projects, a practice known as earmarking that figured prominently in several recent congressional scandals.

The ethics bill was the first one brought before the Senate by its newly elected Democratic majority after a campaign that highlighted congressional corruption. And the measure’s supporters argued that it would ensure Capitol Hill handled its business in a more above-board fashion. “With their votes last November, the American people made it clear that they wanted us to change the way Washington works, and that’s exactly what the Senate did today,” said Sen. Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, the second-ranking Democrat in the chamber.

The measure passed 96 to 2; casting the “no” votes were Sens. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) and Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah). Sens. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) and Tim Johnson (D-S.D.) did not vote.


Even some of the bill’s supporters, however, were skeptical about whether it would prevent corruption.

“We can write all the rules we want, but if a member of this body has the instincts of corruption in his soul, he will find a way around the rules,” Sen. Robert F. Bennett (R-Utah) said during debate this week.

The bill does little to address the source of lobbyists’ greatest influence: campaign contributions.

“While we are eliminating the $20 lunches and the club-level tickets to local sporting events, this bill does not address what is an even more pressing issue, namely the $10,000 campaign contributions” that come from corporate political action committees, said Sen. Bernard Sanders (I-Vt.).

Paul Miller, a former president of the American League of Lobbyists, noted that lobbyists still would be able to take senators to an expensive lunch -- so long as they pay for the meal as a campaign donation.

But ethics watchdogs, who often have cast a critical eye on lawmakers’ proposals to toughen congressional rules, cheered the Senate action.

Fred Wertheimer, president of the group Democracy 21, said the measure contained “landmark ethics and lobbying reforms that respond to the deep concerns of the American people about corruption and ethics problems in Congress.”

Still, Wertheimer and other reform advocates plan to continue to press for creation of an independent office to investigate ethics complaints against senators. As was the case last year, the Senate soundly rejected that proposal during debate.

The House acted on the first day of the new congressional session to tighten rules governing its members -- voting, for instance, to prohibit the lawmakers from hitching rides on corporate jets. Those rules are not affected by the Senate action.

On the broader issue of activities by lobbyists, House Democrats plan to draft a bill that touches on some of the same issues covered in the Senate legislation. Once the House gives its expected approval, the two chambers would need to reconcile any differences in their bills, and then a final bill would be sent to the president.

In some cases, the Senate bill would impose different rules than those adopted by the House. For example, senators would still be allowed to fly on corporate jets but would be required to pay charter rates instead of the less costly equivalent of a first-class ticket.

The Senate measure would require senators to disclose special-interest items they slip into bills, including certifying that they and their immediate family members have no financial stake in the earmark.

The legislation would require lobbyists to more frequently report their contacts with lawmakers and the campaign contributions they make.

Perhaps more important, lobbyists would be obliged to disclose the campaign donations they collect from relatives, friends and clients and then funnel to politicians -- a tactic that has enabled them to exert more influence as the cost of running for office has escalated.

The bill would double -- from one to two years -- the prohibition on former lawmakers lobbying Congress and would for the most part bar spouses of senators from lobbying any Senate office. Four Senate spouses are currently registered as lobbyists.

The measure also would deny congressional pensions to former lawmakers convicted in the future of serious ethics offenses.

This provision was sparked, in part, by the scandal surrounding former Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham (R-Rancho Santa Fe), although it would not apply to him. Cunningham is in prison after pleading guilty in late 2005 to taking $2.4 million in bribes from defense contractors and evading more than $1 million in taxes.

Ethics lapses dogged Republicans in the 2006 midterm election. They included the Cunningham scandal, another one in which lobbyist Jack Abramoff pleaded guilty to trying to bribe lawmakers, and allegations of sexual misconduct against former Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.). Voter anger over these matters contributed to the Democrats winning control of both congressional chambers.

Passage of the Senate bill came as former Rep. Bob Ney (R-Ohio), who pleaded guilty to conspiracy and making false statements in the Abramoff scandal, is scheduled to be sentenced today.

Those voting for the ethics bill included California Democratic Sens. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein.

In its debate, the Senate rejected a proposal to require advocacy groups to disclose paid efforts aimed at mobilizing the public to contact Congress.

Supporters of the provision said it was aimed at so-called Astroturf lobbying -- efforts funded by special interests that seek to mask themselves as grass-roots organizations. But a coalition of conservative and liberal groups joined forces to vigorously fight the provision, contending it could have a chilling effect on lobbying spurred by grass-roots concerns.

The bipartisan vote in favor of the ethics bill belied the partisan wrangling that threatened to scuttle it earlier in the day.

Republicans held up the bill, demanding a vote on one of their long-standing priorities -- a measure to give the president a version of the line-item veto to strike out specific items from spending legislation.

Democrats accused the Republicans of a ploy aimed at killing the ethics bill. Republicans accused Democrats of blocking efforts to rein in spending.

As the day wore on, the two sides reached an agreement to allow a vote on the line-item veto next week during consideration of an increase of the federal minimum wage. The House approved such an increase this month.


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Tougher rules

Key provisions of the ethics and lobbying bill passed by the Senate.

* Bans gifts from lobbyists and companies that hire lobbyists.

* Ensures that members pay the full price for skybox tickets and other tickets to sporting and entertainment events.

* Bans congressional travel paid for by lobbyists and generally bans travel paid for by companies that hire lobbyists. Members must obtain pre-approval from the ethics committee for official travel paid for by outside groups.

* Requires senators traveling on private jets to pay the full charter rate, rather than the equivalent of a first-class ticket rate.

* Extends from one year to two the waiting period before a former member can engage in lobbying activities.

* Bars the spouses of sitting members from lobbying the Senate.

* Requires public disclosure by members of negotiations for private-sector employment.

* Takes away the federal pension benefits of lawmakers convicted of serious crimes.

* Allows members to file a point of order against “out-of-scope” matters that are slipped into House-Senate conference reports.

* Requires public disclosure of earmarks -- pet projects and targeted tax breaks -- inserted into legislation.

* Ends the practice of a single member being able to secretly hold up action on legislation. Those putting “holds” on legislation will have to identify themselves.

* Requires lobbying disclosure forms to be filed quarterly rather than semi-annually.

* Requires lobbyists to report their campaign contributions and fundraisers and the “bundling” of small donations from clients for political contributions.

* Prevents lobbyists and lobbying organizations from hosting lavish parties at national conventions.


Source: Associated Press