A Senate committee yesterday rejected a bipartisan proposal to establish an independent office to oversee the enforcement of congressional ethics and lobbying laws, signaling a reluctance in Congress to beef up the enforcement of its rules on lobbying.
The Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs voted 11 to 5 to defeat a proposal by its chairman, Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), and its ranking Democrat, Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (Conn.), that would have created an office of public integrity to toughen enforcement and combat the loss of reputation Congress has suffered after the guilty plea in January of former lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Democrats joined Republicans in killing the measure.
The vote was described by government watchdog groups and several lawmakers as the latest example of Congress's waning interest in stringent lobbying reform. After starting the year with bold talk about banning privately paid meals and travel, lawmakers are moving toward producing a bill that would ban few of their activities and would rely mostly on stepped-up disclosure and reporting requirements as their lobbying changes.
"Lobbying reform is going more the enforcement route," said Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. "What's that going to do? Nothing much."
Yesterday, the governmental affairs panel spent most of its three-hour drafting session debating the Collins-Lieberman proposal. Collins argued that by hiring professionals to oversee lobbying reports and the investigation of ethics complaints, Congress would improve its credibility by ending the appearance of conflict-of-interest created by the self-policing of its ethics committees.
"The current system of reviewing lobbyists' public reports is a joke," she added.
But Sen. George V. Voinovich (R-Ohio), chairman of the Senate's Select Committee on Ethics and a member of Collins's panel, said the ethics panel does not need any help because it is already doing a thorough job of enforcing the chamber's rules. Speaking of the audits and investigations that the office of public integrity would undertake, Voinovich said: "The ethics committee is already doing those things."
With the backing of current and past ethics panel members in attendance, Voinovich proposed, and the governmental affairs committee adopted, an amendment that would strike the new office from the committee's bill while requiring more openness in the now secretive ethics panel. An annual report would list the number of alleged rule violations that are reported or otherwise dealt with by the House and Senate ethics committees.
Watchdog groups reacted angrily. "The cutting out of the office of public integrity really undermines this whole effort," said Joan Claybrook, president of the liberal group Public Citizen.
Lieberman said he will try to get the integrity office approved next week when lobbying legislation is scheduled for action on the Senate floor. He said that he will be joined by other senators in a variety of efforts to get the lobbying bill back in the direction it was headed at the beginning of the year.
In January, House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) was joined by leaders of both parties in calling for bans or severe restrictions on gifts, meals and travel provided by private groups. The proposed stiff limitations were the initial reaction to the political scandals involving Abramoff and members of Congress and their staffs.
But as the legislation has evolved and Abramoff has faded from the headlines, calls for bans have grown scarce, and expanded disclosure has become the centerpiece of the efforts underway. Two Senate committees this week have largely left undiminished lawmakers' ability to accept meals and travel, and the House appears headed in the same direction.
"Disclosure, transparency and oversight systems are the tenets we're interested in implementing," said Kevin Madden, spokesman for House Majority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio). Boehner succeeded Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Tex.), who was forced to step down as leader last year after he was indicted in Texas on campaign-money laundering charges.
"We're focusing on more disclosure, transparency," agreed Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.), chairman of the Senate Rules and Administration Committee, which approved its own disclosure bill Tuesday. The measure will be considered by the full Senate next week.
Some of the disclosure proposals are significant. The governmental affairs committee agreed for the first time to require professional grass-roots lobbying firms to report publicly how much they spend to influence government actions. Currently, only people who are paid to directly lobby lawmakers and their staffs must disclose their activities. Grass-roots lobbying is indirect lobbying to try to galvanize voters back home.
The bill would also require lobbyists to file quarterly reports, rather than the current biannual ones, on their activities, as well as a new, annual disclosure that would detail their donations to federal candidates, officeholders and political parties. In addition, lobbyists would have to disclose all the travel they arrange for lawmakers and all the gifts worth more than $20 that they give to them.
Lobbying reports would be filed electronically and would be accessible via the Internet, something that is not always true today.
On Tuesday, the Rules Committee approved its own set of extra disclosures. Its bill would require that meals accepted by senators and their aides be reported online within 15 days. That bill would also require that senators get approval in advance from the Senate Select Committee on Ethics for any privately financed travel that they accept. The trips and their main details would have to be disclosed rapidly, including the names of the people who come along on private aircraft.
So far, only one outright ban has been approved. The Rules Committee decided to prohibit lawmakers from accepting gifts other than meals from registered lobbyists and foreign agents. That would include such benefits as tickets to sporting events and the theater. House Republicans leaders have not endorsed a similar ban.
Another serious restriction, approved by the governmental affairs committee, would slow what has been called the revolving door between government and the K Street lobbying industry. The provision would double to two years the time during which former lawmakers and former top executive branch officials would be barred from lobbying their ex-colleagues. It would also ban -- for a year after leaving their Capitol Hill jobs -- former senior congressional staffers from lobbying anyone in the chamber in which they had worked. Currently, staff members are prohibited from lobbying only their former offices during their one-year "cooling-off period."
But Lieberman said he wants to do more. He said he will try to curtail corporate-plane travel by forcing lawmakers to pay charter fares for their private airplane trips rather than the first-class rates that are allowed under current law.
This restriction was proposed during a Rules Committee debate earlier in the week but was defeated.