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House stiffens ethics rules

The Senate is ready to pass an identical bill, the toughest crackdown on congressional behavior in decades.

August 01, 2007|Richard Simon | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — In the most sweeping overhaul of congressional ethics rules since the Watergate era, the House on Tuesday overwhelmingly approved a bill aimed at curbing the influence of lobbyists and repairing Congress' corruption-sullied image.

Democrats promised to pass the measure after they won control of Congress following a campaign that denounced the Republican "culture of corruption" on Capitol Hill.

The legislation is one of a number of accomplishments that the majority party, ridiculed by Republicans for its slim legislative record, hopes to deliver before lawmakers break at the end of the week for a monthlong recess. The Senate plans to approve an identical bill this week and send it to President Bush for his signature.

The bill would impose new rules on lawmakers and lobbyists, requiring reports on the campaign checks that lobbyists solicit from different contributors and denying congressional pensions to lawmakers convicted of felonies. It would even bar senators-turned-lobbyists from setting foot in the Senate gym.

"If there was one message that was abundantly clear based on the results of last year's election, it was that the American people want us to end the culture of corruption that has enveloped the legislative process," said Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. "We've heard that message loud and clear."

The bill's 411-8 approval comes after two former Republican lawmakers -- Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham of Rancho Santa Fe and Rep. Bob Ney of Ohio -- and former lobbyist Jack Abramoff were sent to prison on corruption charges.

About a dozen current and former lawmakers, including two other California Republicans, have come under scrutiny. Just this week, federal agents involved in a public corruption investigation searched the Alaska home of Sen. Ted Stevens, the chamber's longest-serving Republican. Stevens has denied any wrongdoing.

Bob Edgar, a former Democratic congressman from Pennsylvania who heads the government watchdog group Common Cause, lauded Tuesday's House action. "It was kind of a surprise to us that it passed as overwhelmingly as it did, as quickly as it did," he said, saying the congressional agility was a response to widespread voter anger. "They want Congress to clean up its act."

The bill would, for the first time, require disclosure of campaign contributions that lobbyists collect from clients, friends and others and then take credit for raising. The practice, known as bundling, is a major source of lobbyists' influence over Washington politicians. The bill would require congressional and presidential campaigns to report bundled donations of $15,000 or more collected in a six-month period.

The legislation also aims to end the process that has allowed lawmakers to secretly slip special-interest appropriations -- often at a lobbyist's behest -- into legislation. It would require disclosure of the names of the lawmakers behind the spending requests. Earmarking has figured prominently in the congressional scandals.

Under the bill, lobbyists would have to disclose their activities more often; pay fines of as much as $200,000, raised from a maximum $50,000, for willful violations; and face a new criminal penalty of as long as five years in prison for "knowingly and corruptly" violating the rules.

It also would bar lawmakers from attempting to pressure businesses into hiring lobbyists based on their political affiliation -- a practice promoted by former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) and others who succeeded in strong-arming lobbying firms into hiring more Republicans.

Some of the rules would differ between the House and the Senate.

The bill would double, to two years, the period in which former senators would be barred from lobbying Congress. But in the House, where dozens of ex-lawmakers have cashed in on lucrative lobbying jobs, the one-year "cooling off" period would remain unchanged.

"The House and Senate are two different bodies, with the House having a higher turnover rate than the Senate," said Brendan Daly, a spokesman for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco). "We made compromises along the way to pass the most critical part of the bill -- bundling."

On the other hand, the House took a stricter view of its members flying on corporate-owned jets, banning the practice. Senators, who travel all over their states, and presidential candidates, who crisscross the country, would be permitted to fly on corporate jets but would have to pay charter rates -- instead of the less-costly equivalent of a first-class ticket.

"There is no reason why senators, or anyone else, should not be able to buy a good or service if they pay fair market value," said Jim Manley, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).

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