Democrats on Wednesday unveiled their cure for ethics scandals that have engulfed the Republican-controlled Congress, including shutting down “pay-to-play” arrangements that created unusually close ties between lawmakers and lobbyists.
“The Republicans have turned Congress into an auction house for sale to the highest bidder,” said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California.
Leading Senate Democrats joined her to propose reforms in the aftermath of lobbyist Jack Abramoff’s guilty pleas this month in a wide-ranging bribery probe that has implicated at least one member of Congress, Republican Rep. Bob Ney of Ohio, and some former aides to Rep Tom DeLay of Texas.
The Democrats linked Republicans’ lobbying ties in recent years with favors to energy, pharmaceutical and other special interests at the expense of consumers.
“Instead of meeting with lobbyists, it’s time to start meeting with some of the 45 million Americans with no health care,” said Sen. Barack Obama, an Illinois Democrat.
High on Democrats’ list of reforms was ending “pay-to-play schemes like the K Street Project,” named after the downtown Washington boulevard that is home to many lobbyists.
The project was the brainchild of former House Majority Leader DeLay and others as a way of pressuring lobbyists to hire Republican congressional aides in exchange for preferred treatment in legislation.
DeLay is under indictment for money laundering and conspiracy in a Texas campaign finance case unrelated to his close ties to Abramoff.
The Democrats’ proposals came one day after congressional Republicans sketched out ethics reforms they would like to see enacted before voters go to the polls in November to elect members of Congress.
Democrats, meanwhile, were bracing for developments in a scandal that has fewer tentacles than Abramoff, but could implicate fellow Democratic Rep. William Jefferson of Louisiana. An aide to Jefferson recently pleaded guilty to bribery charges in a case involving a Nigerian telecommunications venture.
Jabbing away at Republicans
In offering the lobbying reforms, Democrats jabbed away at their political opponents’ association with questionable activities.
For instance, the Democrats’ “Jack Abramoff Reform” proposal would ban lawmakers from accepting the kind of gifts, meals and travel the lobbyist showered on some Republicans. House Speaker Dennis Hastert, an Illinois Republican, embraced such a ban on Tuesday.
Like Republicans, Democrats would end lawmakers-turned-lobbyists access to the House or Senate floor — retiring lawmakers and senior aides would not be allowed to lobby for two years, double the current cooling-off period.
Critics have complained that neither political party would set up a separate ethics commission to monitor lawmakers’ behavior. Instead, both parties would impose better disclosure of campaign contributions and lobbying activities.
Other clean-government groups have noted that without new campaign finance reform, lobbyists might simply replace free airplane travel and hotel rooms with more political donations.
Sen. Trent Lott, a Mississippi Republican who hopes to regain a Senate leadership job next year, warned against going too far in reaction to the Abramoff scandal. He singled out moves to end the practice of secretly inserting special projects into spending bills at the behest of lobbyists.
While those “earmarks” have “gotten out of control,” Lott said, they can be an effective way for Congress to address a problem or need back home.