By Jonathan E. Kaplan - 01/18/06 12:00 AM EST
Seeking to distance the Republican Party from the stain of recent influence-peddling and bribery scandals, House and Senate leaders yesterday unveiled bold proposals to revamp ethics rules, beginning with a Feb. 1 House vote to ban former members who are lobbyists from the House floor and the congressional gym.
Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and Rules Committee Chairman David Dreier (R-Calif.) told reporters that House committees should pass more extensive lobbying changes by the end of February, including a “significantly stronger gift ban and private travel ban” and a doubling of the current one-year ban on members’ and staffers’ moving to K Street. The two leaders also want to bar members convicted of a work-related felony from receiving pension benefits.
But the outlook for proposed restrictions on earmarks and reforming so-called 527 campaign organizations remained unclear. Asked whether the ban would apply to all registered lobbyists, Dreier said he had not considered that possibility.
“It’s a very good start, and it sends a good message that the Speaker is serious about reform, that things are going to change, things need to change, and our party can get our act together,” said Rep. Ray LaHood (R-Ill.).
Meanwhile, House and Senate Democratic leaders will counter the GOP’s lobbying and ethics reform goals today with their own ideas that they have been pushing since early last year.
They intend to name each of today’s proposals after a lobbyist or activist linked to the Jack Abramoff scandal, according to an advance summary of the measures.
The so-called “Abramoff reform” would prohibit lawmakers from receiving gifts from lobbyists. The “Grover Norquist reform,” named for the conservative head of Americans for Tax Reform, aims to shut down the K Street Project, a Republican initiative to install Republicans in key lobbying positions. The “Tony Rudy reform” draws attention to a former aide to Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas) who later worked for Abramoff as a lobbyist. It would double the one-year cooling-off period during with former lawmakers and congressional staffers may not lobby their old offices.
Democrats will also seek to address some of their longtime grievances about how Republican leaders conduct the House’s business. The “Frist and Hastert reform” would require that conference meetings be open to the public and that members hold a public vote on all potential amendments. It would also mandate that conference reports be publicly available at least 24 hours before consideration, unless waived by a supermajority vote of the House.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) called the Republican plan “a Band-Aid on a gaping wound,” noting that Hastert and Dreier’s effort does not increase enforcement of lobbying rules and would leave intact the GOP’s “K Street Project” pressure campaign.
In the race for House majority leader, candidates Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) and John Boehner (R-Ohio) embraced Hastert and Dreier’s lobbying-reform effort. Rep. John Shadegg (R-Ariz.) also praised the effort but said that banning privately-paid-for travel “would be an overreaction that doesn’t get to the root of the problem.”
House Republican leaders discussed their proposals early yesterday and in a 90-minute conference call with rank-and-file lawmakers.
Hastert said internal differences persisted among conference members on the call and stressed that the House would insist on equal treatment for House and Senate appropriators during consideration of budget-process overhaul.
“In a lot of these cases, the Senate plays appropriations games, moves money from one place to another. It gets to be a game back and forth,” Hastert said. “We need to do this on an equal footing. There needs to be fairness between the House and Senate.”
But GOP sources said some lawmakers criticized the proposal to ban privately funded travel and the lack of an aggressive approach to combating earmarks.
“We need to do [earmark reform] regardless of whether the Senate does it. We ought to move first,” said Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.). “We have heard that kind of thing before, and it’s usually an excuse to do nothing.”
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who has introduced both a bill aimed at stopping lawmakers from slipping earmarks into conference reports and a broader lobbying reform bill, said, “Earmarks must be addressed to cure the illness of the way we do business in the nation’s capital.” McCain called the mushrooming of earmarks “out of control” and “obscene.”
Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.), who wrote the lobbying-reform bill with McCain, criticized the bill for not going far enough. For instance, it continues to allow lawmakers to charter corporate planes at the cost of a first-class airline ticket.
“How can you change the relationship with lobbyists and fly FedEx planes around the country and just pay first-class costs?” he asked, adding later: “We have to overcompensate to gain credibility and control again.”
Both House and Senate leaders focused on improving the levels of transparency and disclosure in the new laws. They did not directly address whether to include a new enforcement mechanism as part of the reforms, although McCain said all ideas are negotiable.
Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.), a candidate for whip in the House, has proposed creating an oversight commission funded by a fee on registered lobbyists.
Political reform legislation has moved through the Congress in fits and starts during the past 15 years.
After Republicans won control of the Congress in 1995, they passed the first set of changes to lobbying laws since 1946 by instituting a gift ban, redefining what constitutes lobbying activity and requiring lobbyists to disclose whom they are working for and their fees twice each year.
In 1989, Democrats passed an ethics reform package after three Democratic leaders resigned amid scandal.
In 1993, an attempt by President Clinton and some Republicans to pass ethics and lobbying reforms was stymied by a Republican-led Senate filibuster.
Seeking to regain power in Congress, Democrats are trying to learn from their own mistakes in the early 1990s.
“This story of power corrupts has got legs, and it’s already tarnished their image as the reformers who took over a ‘corrupt body,’” said former Democratic Whip Tony Coelho, who resigned in 1989 rather than have the House ethics committee probe his relationship with a failed savings and .loan. “They are now the perceived corrupt body.”
Alexander Bolton and Josephine Hearn contributed to this report.