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Senators Want Outsiders for Ethics Overhaul

They say an independent panel is more likely to create bolder reforms than Congress would.

January 26, 2006|Mary Curtius | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Convinced that Congress cannot overhaul its rules on ethics and lobbying in the politically charged atmosphere of an election year, two senators called Wednesday for the creation of an independent commission to do the job.

Sens. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) and Norm Coleman (R-Minn.) said an outside panel was more likely to come up with a sweeping package of changes than a Congress riven by partisanship.

But their proposal faced quick resistance from two senators leading the reform push -- Democrat Joe Lieberman of Connecticut and Republican John McCain of Arizona. They have proposed legislation that would require lobbyists to provide more detailed reports about their contacts with lawmakers and other business activities.

Both said Wednesday that they feared creating an independent commission and that waiting for it to act would slow the momentum for change that had been building since former lobbyist Jack Abramoff pleaded guilty this month to corruption charges.

"I don't want to wait," McCain told reporters. "We've got to act quickly."

The call for an independent panel also was likely to face opposition from Senate veterans who zealously guard the institution's prerogatives and are loath to allow outsiders to help drive its decision-making.

The commission proposal and the hurdles to it underscore the difficulties lawmakers face as they attempt to rewrite the guidelines that govern the dealings between themselves and lobbyists.

Proposals for tightening ethics and lobbying rules have proliferated in the House and Senate. They include measures that would ban trips by lawmakers and their aides that are financed by outside groups. GOP leaders of both chambers have vowed to push through an overhaul by the middle of the year.

Some members of Congress say the packages go too far, arguing the efforts to rein in travel would prevent them from getting firsthand information about domestic and international problems.

Others complain the reform proposals fail to address what they say are the roots of the problem spotlighted by the Abramoff case -- private funding of campaigns and the common practice of lawmakers inserting money for pet projects and programs into government spending bills. Lobbyists offer help to lawmakers on both fronts.

Coleman said he believed the creation of an independent commission offered the best hope for Congress to grapple with such issues and to "overcome the stain" caused by the Abramoff scandal.

Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) said he supported the idea because it would provide "a whole lot more credibility" to the reform process.

Only by bringing in outsiders to make recommendations, he said, could Capitol Hill achieve "real reform based not on political reaction but on what is best for the institution and best for the republic."

The proposal received no support from Senate leaders in either party, who engaged in their own squabble about how to proceed with carrying out reforms.

Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) offered to create a bipartisan task force with equal numbers of Democratic and Republican senators to rewrite ethics and lobbying rules -- a proposal quickly rejected by Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).

Such a task force, Reid spokesman Jim Manley said, would hamper the process. "Legislating is hard work," Manley said. "We know what the problem is and we know what needs to be done. We should just do it."

Coleman and Nelson said the independent panel they wanted would be modeled on the commission appointed after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks to investigate failings by the U.S. intelligence community. That panel, divided evenly between Democrats and Republicans, produced a report that spurred Congress to restructure the workings of intelligence-gathering agencies.

But former Rep. Lee H. Hamilton (D-Ind.), co-chairman of the Sept. 11 commission, noted that lawmakers rebuffed the panel's recommendations for reorganizing congressional oversight of the intelligence community.

"They didn't pay any attention to us at all," Hamilton said. "They reformed the executive branch, but on the whole question of robust oversight they just totally ignored those recommendations."

Hamilton, who served on the House Ethics Committee, said he believed Congress was incapable of policing itself. He advocates the creation of a permanent, independent commission to oversee congressional ethics, a proposal supported by some watchdog groups.

To be effective, Hamilton added, the commission would "have the power to initiate investigations, hold hearings, hear complaints and

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