Ethics reformers in House push for independent panel

The Capitol’s bipartisan and bicameral crew of reform-minded lawmakers renewed their quest yesterday for stronger limits on member contact with K Street, though their plan for an independent ethics enforcement office could run into trouble in next year’s Congress.

Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Russ Feingold (D-Wis.), Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) were joined by Reps. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.) and Marty Meehan (D-Mass.), all highlighting the role of congressional corruption in last month’s midterm turnabout and vowing to pass lobbying and ethics reform in the early days of the 110th Congress.

“Waves of reform sweep the political beaches, and this wave was coming,” McCain said. He and Feingold are also planning to resume their drive for campaign-finance regulation, which produced a landmark crackdown in 2002, and includes politically precarious curbs on 527 spending.

Collins and Lieberman, who work closely atop the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, focused on their bid to create an independent Office of Public Integrity that would examine lawmakers, staff and lobbyists for any alleged rules violations.

Their attempt to add the office to this spring’s Senate ethics bill fell 37 votes short in the face of bipartisan opposition to what some members perceived as outsourcing the ethics process.

The half-dozen lawmakers appearing yesterday, however, expressed hope that their colleagues would come around in the wake of exit polls showing that scandals on the Hill played a central role in handing the Democrats control of both chambers on Election Day.

“Republicans started this session … basically prostituting ethics reforms in the House,” Shays said. Supporters of the push should do “the best they can right away [in January],” he added, “because every day after that it’s going to be harder to introduce reform.”

McCain admitted that the group was under no illusions about the ease of its task. “I can only hope” lawmakers will be chastened enough by the fallout from the Jack Abramoff and Randy “Duke” Cunningham scandals to make greater strides toward reform, he said.

Many of the changes argued for yesterday are also high priorities for House and Senate Democratic leadership, which continues to iron out the specifics of how and when new lobbying and ethics rules will be considered next year.

“No final decisions have been made about the form of the legislation or the process for moving forward,” Jim Manley, spokesman for incoming Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), said via e-mail.

Reform packages offered by senior Democrats this year would ban gifts from lobbyists as well as lobbyist involvement in congressional travel, require greater disclosure of travel itineraries, and double the “revolving door” limits on departed members and aides who become lobbyists, among other changes. The Senate’s lobbying and ethics bill passed in March by a broad margin, but House Republicans struggled to push through a bill in May that Lieberman decried yesterday as “unworthy of the name ‘reform.’”

“We’re going to make another strong attempt to ask our colleagues to take a serious look” at the Office of Public Integrity, Lieberman said. He acknowledged that the proposal sparked “a surprising amount of defensiveness by ethics committee members … [who felt] this somehow reflected on the job they are doing.”

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who will assume the Rules Committee chairmanship next year, previously has expressed reticence on the public integrity proposal. But she said yesterday that she would introduce her own ethics bill on the first day of the 110th Congress and start discussions with senior ethics panel members as well as others.

“I plan to keep an open door and an open mind on this issue,” Feinstein said through a spokesman. “I hope that by working together we can develop a plan that provides for strong and effective enforcement, but does not overtly politicize the investigative process nor raise serious constitutional questions.”

Feingold reiterated his own intention to pass revolving-door revisions that cover lobbying activities in addition to lobbying contacts. He said Reid plans to call up this spring’s Senate lobbying bill as a template to build on in January, but has assured other Democrats that the measure will be subject to amendments on the floor aimed at strengthening it.

Senate Democratic leaders have tapped Feingold and Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) to focus on lobbying and ethics priorities, and Obama laid down his own marker on reform yesterday. Obama issued a statement echoing the bipartisan group’s calls for a gift ban and an independent enforcement body. Democrats’ success last month means that voters expect “more than window dressing when it comes to ethics reform” next year, he said.

Obama, who is weighing a presidential run in 2008, also called for a ban on privately funded travel, which the bipartisan group stopped short of endorsing yesterday. Instead, they would require members and staffers to get ethics committee preapproval before accepting trips and boost disclosure requirements.

Collins and Lieberman’s Office of Public Integrity amendment would empower the office to investigate members and staff for any alleged violation of conduct rules, leaving lobbying violations to another new office proposed under a separate amendment. Reid and Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), the Democrats’ new caucus vice chairman, voted against that amendment on the floor, but Obama introduced a similar public integrity proposal this year with Reid as cosponsor.

Manley said the amendment was defeated in the face of objections from the ethics committee as well as senior Judiciary Committee members and others: “No decision has been made about such a proposal in the 110th Congress, and Democrats look forward to debating all of these issues next year.”