WASHINGTON — The House voted overwhelmingly Tuesday to require lawmakers to disclose more details of their bids to fund pet projects and their fundraising help from lobbyists.
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Some self-described watchdog groups called the measure, which now goes to the Senate, the most significant congressional reform in years.
The bill, drafted by Democratic leaders, would require House and Senate members to disclose those lobbyists who raise $15,000 or more for them within a six-month period by “bundling” donations from many people. It also would bar lobbyists and their clients from giving gifts, including meals and tickets, to lawmakers.
Senators seeking targeted spending projects or “earmarks” would have to publicize their plans 48 hours before the Senate votes on the proposals, and declare their families would not directly benefit financially. The House made similar changes to its rules governing earmarks in January.
House members approved the new legislation 411 to 8, even though some privately grumbled that it would complicate their fundraising efforts. Senate leaders expect opposition from some conservative Republicans, but they predicted final passage of the measure by week’s end.
Some open-government groups said the bill should have gone further. But others hailed it as a far-reaching response to recent scandals involving lobbyists who urged or even bribed lawmakers to help their clients by quietly slipping earmarks into spending bills.
“These are big-time fundamental reforms that will end the secrecy surrounding the multiple ways in which Washington lobbyists use money to curry favor and gain access and influence with members of Congress,” said Fred Wertheimer, president of the nonprofit group Democracy21.
The legislation marks Congress’ most far-reaching reactions to scandals involving former lobbyist Jack Abramoff and former Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham, R-Calif. Both men are now in prison on corruption charges that in some cases involved congressional earmarks.
The House voted a day after federal agents searched the Alaska home of Sen. Ted Stevens , R-Alaska, who is involved in a probe of alleged bribery attempts by oil services executives.
The bill “mandates unprecedented disclosure of lobbying activities and turns the spotlight on the special interests who have grown too comfortable with their special access,” Rep. Rahm Emanuel, D-Ill., said during the brief debate preceding the House vote. It “levels the playing field between the special interests and the voters,” he said.
Reform advocates said the bill’s main element involves greater disclosure of lobbyists who “bundle” campaign donations to lawmakers by soliciting checks from numerous people. Under current disclosure laws, their efforts often go undetected, but the lawmakers are well aware of the help they received.
Earlier versions of the bill would have required lobbyist-bundlers to disclose their contributions to federal candidates, but many lawmakers preferred to control such reports themselves.
Dems ran against 'culture of corruption'
The upcoming Senate debate may focus more on the earmark provisions. Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., said the bill “guts key earmark reforms,” in part because it would allow the majority party’s leaders — not the Senate parliamentarian— to rule on whether earmark disclosure requirements have been met.
Dissident senators would not be able to challenge the accuracy of the ruling, but they could try to strike an unreported earmark by offering an amendment.
The bill also would require former senators and top aides to wait two years before directly lobbying Congress. Ex-House members would have to wait one year. An earlier Senate version would have banned all lobbying activities for two years, not just direct contacts with lawmakers.
Democrats promised a crackdown on lobbying abuses when they campaigned in 2006 against a “culture of corruption” in Congress, then controlled by Republicans. The new Democratic-controlled House and Senate quickly embraced tighter guidelines on lobbying, spending and fundraising in January. But efforts to reconcile differences had bogged down in subsequent months.
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