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House unveils plans to restrict lobbyist gifts

House Republicans moved to seize the initiative for ethics reform Tuesday with a comprehensive package of changes.
The scandal surrounding ex-lobbyist Jack Abramoff prompted both parties to propose ways to curb ethics abuses.Gerald Herbert / AP file
/ Source: The Associated Press

House Speaker Dennis Hastert urged new restrictions on gifts from lobbyists Tuesday, responding to a scandal that already has claimed two Republican leaders and raised GOP fears about this year’s elections.

Hastert, confronting a political crisis spawned by the Jack Abramoff scandal, promoted legislation that would end the practices of lobbyists footing the bill for lunches or arranging lavish “fact-finding” trips for members of Congress to warm-weather resorts.

Lawmakers-turned-lobbyists would be banned from the House gym and from access to the House floor, where they have been known to make deals in hopes of changing votes.

House Rules Committee Chairman David Dreier, R-Calif., who is spearheading the lobbying overhaul effort for Hastert, said the goal was to pass legislation by the end of February. He said it would include the forfeiture of congressional pensions for members convicted of a felony related to official duties.

“The problems we have been reading about stem from violation of existing rules,” Hastert, R-Ill., said in apparent reference to Abramoff, who sought to influence lawmakers through donations, meals at his high-priced restaurant, golfing trips and skybox seats. Abramoff has pleaded guilty to corruption-related charges and is cooperating with prosecutors.

New ethics proposal from Democrats
Democrats, who are unveiling their own lobbying ethics package on Wednesday, chided Republicans for addressing the issue only after the Abramoff controversy helped bring down two senior Republicans and cast a shadow on next fall’s elections.

Former Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, who had stepped down from his post after being indicted on campaign finance charges in Texas, decided against trying to regain his job after the guilty plea of Abramoff, with whom he had long had ties. And Rep. Bob Ney, R-Ohio, another recipient of benefits from Abramoff’s clients, has temporarily given up his chairmanship of the House Administration Committee.

House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi said that “for more than a decade, Speaker Hastert and House Republicans have benefited from their systemic culture of corruption at the expense of the American people. Today, the Republicans’ so-called lobbying reform proposal sticks a Band-Aid on a gaping wound.”

Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada and Democratic Whip Richard Durbin of Illinois have told their staffs that they may no longer accept gifts, meals or travel from lobbyists.

Within minutes of Hastert’s news conference, Republican senators met with reporters to announce Senate plans for quick action on lobbying reform.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., often at odds with his own party in pressing for reforms in how lawmakers get elected and conduct business, was joined by Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., a member of the GOP leadership deputized by Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., to work with McCain on the issue.

More details about lobbyist actions
McCain, who introduced legislation several months ago, said he would work with Democrats, including Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut and McCain’s partner on the campaign finance act, Russ Feingold of Wisconsin. His bill would also restrict gifts and travel arranged by lobbyists, extend the time period between when a lawmaker leaves Congress and can accept a job as a lobbyist, and require more detailed disclosure of lobbying activities.

McCain said he also wanted to do something about “earmarks,” special projects sought by individual members, often with the encouragement of lobbyists, that are inserted in larger pieces of legislation.

Many of these earmarks, “if not criminal, certainly are obscene,” McCain said with a reference to former Rep. Duke Cunningham, R-Calif., who recently pleaded guilty to accepting bribes from defense contractors.

Hastert, at his news conference, shrugged off criticisms that he had put off action on lobbying reform and was only responding when his own party faced a crisis.

“A year ago most people around Congress couldn’t tell you who Jack Abramoff was,” he said.

Hastert also said that, after an hour-and-a-half conference call with House Republicans on Tuesday, he did not have unanimity on changes to lobbying rules, in particular the proposal to ban all privately funded travel.

Avoiding the root of the problem?
Rep. John Shadegg, R-Ariz., who is running to succeed DeLay as majority leader, put out a statement that “many trips are truly educational, and I believe a complete ban on all private travel would be an overreaction that doesn’t get to the root of the problem.”

Under current rules, approved interest groups and think tanks can finance travel for speeches, meetings and fact-finding missions. Lobbyists are already banned from paying for such trips.

Members of Congress also can accept only those gifts valued at under $50, with a ceiling of $100 from any one individual in a year.

Hastert and Dreier said their gift ban would be “significantly stronger” but would not prevent members from accepting a baseball hat or a T-shirt from visiting middle-school students.