Voinovich, Collins head for stand-off

A clash over a key component of lobbying-reform legislation has set the stage for a showdown today when a Senate panel plans to mark up a measure that would create a congressional office of public integrity.

A clash over a key component of lobbying-reform legislation has set the stage for a showdown today when a Senate panel plans to mark up a measure that would create a congressional office of public integrity.

Senate Select Committee on Ethics Chairman George Voinovich (R-Ohio) opposes plans by Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), the chairwoman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, to create the public-integrity entity, according to Senate sources.

The new office, which would be headed by a director of public integrity, would take over the investigative functions of the Senate and House ethics committees.

Voinovich, who is also a member of the Collins’s panel, is threatening behind the scenes to attempt to strip language creating the office from broader lobbying-reform legislation the committee will consider. But advocates of lobbying reform say that the creation of the office is an integral part of Collins’s bill and that without it the legislation would be largely meaningless.

Senate leaders will combine Collins’s bill with legislation passed out of the Rules Committee on Tuesday that seeks to impose limits on earmarks and to establish greater disclosure of interactions between lawmakers and lobbyists. They will bring the package to the floor next week. House leaders say they are waiting to see what the Senate comes up with before crafting their own lobbying-reform package.

As is, the Collins bill would not require lobbyists to disclose grassroots activity, according to a draft obtained by The Hill. The so-called grassroots-lobbying disclosure provision is one of the highest priorities of good-government groups.

Democrats plan to fight to reinsert the grassroots provision in committee or on the Senate floor.

The lack of the provision would allow advocacy groups suspected of receiving most of their funding from corporate sponsors, such as the 60 Plus Association, to keep their funders secret. Liberal advocacy groups, such as People for the American Way, which lobbies on judicial nominations, could also keep their funding sources and activities under wraps.

The grassroots-lobbying provision was part of legislation introduced by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). Collins is using selected parts of that legislation as the foundation for her bill.

McCain, whom many lawmakers view as a leading voice on government reform, said that Senate negotiators had to focus on what is “doable,” explaining the dropping of his grassroots-lobbying provision. He said, however, that the creation of an office of public integrity is a “very important aspect of any real reform.”

Sen. Joe Lieberman (Conn.), the ranking Democrat on the Governmental Affairs Committee who negotiated extensively with Collins on the bill, said that Voinovich told Collins he opposes the integrity office. Lieberman also said that Voinovich’s staff told members of his own staff of their boss’s concerns but that he and Voinovich had not yet spoken.

“He thinks it undercuts — well, you’d have to talk to him to get the adjective — the ethics committee,” Lieberman said of Voinovich.

When asked for his views, Voinovich told The Hill: “I have nothing to say.”

Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.), another member of the Senate Ethics Committee who sits on the governmental-reform panel, said that Voinovich mentioned to him that he had concerns about the public-integrity office but didn’t have time to discuss them fully.

But two other Republicans on the Governmental Affairs Committee, Sens. Ted Stevens (Alaska) and Norm Coleman (Minn.), said they oppose creating the office, and another panel member, Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.), said it is generally a bad idea.

“Why do we want to farm our job out?” Stevens said with exasperation, referring to the role of the Ethics Committee, which is composed of six lawmakers. “That’s our job.”

The opposition of Stevens and Domenici would be formidable, as they are two of the most senior and respected members of the Senate GOP conference.

Lieberman said he would probably offer an amendment to require disclosure of grassroots lobbying activity if he and Collins do not work out a compromise before the markup. But he said yesterday afternoon that a compromise appeared less and less likely.

Jim Manley, spokesman for Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid (Nev.), said, “It’s something we think needs to be addressed,” signaling that the issue could become a major sticking point between Senate Republicans and Democrats.

The Governmental Affairs bill, which is expected become the backbone of any lobbying-reform bill Congress passes, contains three main elements:

• Enhancing lobbying disclosure.

It would require lobbyists to disclose their activities in quarterly reports.

It would also create a comprehensive database of disclosure records, including lobbying registrations and reports, travel records, and records of prior employment in the legislative and executive branches.

And it would double the penalty for failing to comply with disclosure requirements to $100,000.

• Setting up the Office of Public Integrity.

The office would be headed by a director appointed for a five-year term with the consent of the Speaker of the House and the majority leader of the Senate, and the minority leaders of both chambers.

The Director of Public Integrity, among other duties, may conduct investigations with the approval of the Senate or House ethics committee.

A chamber’s ethics committee could overrule the Office of Public Integrity with a two-thirds panel vote.

The ethics committees would retain the power to impose penalties.

• Slowing the “revolving door.”

Former lawmakers and staff members would be prohibited from lobbying for two years, a doubling of the current waiting period.