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Senate passes lobbying ethics reform

The Senate approved the first major change in lobbying and ethics rules in more than a decade, in the latest effort by Congress to restore its plummeting reputation with voters before the fall elections.
/ Source: The Associated Press

The Senate gave lopsided approval Wednesday to scandal-inspired legislation restricting lobbyist gift-giving and making lobbying activities more open.

Critics said the measure fell short of steps needed to restore the integrity of Congress in the eyes of the public.

The 90-8 vote came just hours after a U.S. district judge in Miami sentenced former lobbyist Jack Abramoff, whose influence-peddling activities spawned the Senate action, to five years and 10 months in prison on conspiracy and wire fraud charges.

The Senate bill emphasizes disclosure of lobbying contacts rather than new rules, and Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said this increased openness would “make a big difference” in enhancing public confidence.

“We cannot tackle the big issues facing our country if the public does not trust us to act in the public interest,” said Collins, chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

Under the bill, senators would no longer be able to accept gifts or meals from lobbyists and lobbyists would be required to reveal more information about their contacts with lawmakers.

Bill does not bar private travel
But the bill, to the chagrin of many pushing for more fundamental change, does not ban privately funded travel. Nor would it establish a new office in the Senate to investigate ethical violations.

The Senate defeated a proposal by Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., to extend the gift and meal ban to include people working at companies hiring lobbyists. “We ought to just stop the practice of dining out at the expense of others,” he said. But opponents argued that the ban was overly restrictive, and it was defeated 68-30.

Both House and Senate leaders have made lobbying and ethics reform a priority this year after the influence-peddling scandal involving Abramoff and the conviction of former Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham, R-Calif., on bribery charges further eroded popular opinion of Congress.

Some say it's not enough
But many were dissatisfied with the final product, saying it didn’t go far enough to cut unhealthy ties between lawmakers and lobbyists. The Senate bill does not ban privately funded trips, and on Tuesday the Senate defeated a priority of clean government groups: a proposal to establish an independent Office of Public Integrity to carry out investigations of possible ethics violations by senators.

Such investigations are now done by the Senate ethics committee, composed of three Republicans and three Democrats, and members of the panel led the effort to reject the new office, proposed by Collins and Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn. The measure was defeated 67-30.

Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., a proponent of independent investigations, said it was necessary because currently the work of Congress “doesn’t really matter because the American people perceive the entire ethics system, House and Senate, to be broken.”

But Senate ethics committee members said their panel is doing its job — unlike the House ethics committee, which has been paralyzed by partisan battles. The new office, which under the Collins proposal would still cede ultimate authority on punitive actions to the Senate committee, means “more bureaucracy and a more belabored process,” said Senate ethics committee member Tim Johnson, D-S.D.

Common Cause disappointed
Common Cause President Chellie Pingree expressed disappointment in the Senate vote. “Even as the Justice Department investigates possible corruption of at least half a dozen members of Congress, the Senate today is refusing to acknowledge that Congress — in the eyes of the public — has failed to police itself.”

The Senate approved, by 84-13, a proposal offered by Sens. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, to end the practice of secret “holds” in which senators can single-handedly block action on legislation. It would require a senator taking advantage of this common procedure to publish a notice of the objection in the Congressional Record within three days.

“It’s time to force these objections out of the shadows and into the sunshine,” Wyden said.

The Senate lobbying bill would ban accepting meals from lobbyists, require lobbyists to make quarterly reports of their contacts with lawmakers, and force lawmakers to wait two years before accepting jobs lobbying Congress, up from the current one-year moratorium.

The bill also sets up a procedure by which lawmakers can try to eliminate from legislation those earmarks, or specific projects, that often are inserted in conference reports without the knowledge or vote of other members.

The House has yet to take up similar legislation emphasizing greater disclosure of lobbyist activity.

The Senate lobbying reform bill is S. 2349.