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Congress sends ethics bill to Bush

The legislation is designed to restrict the influence of lobbyists.

August 03, 2007|Richard Simon | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Congress on Thursday sent President Bush a bill aimed at reining in the influence of special interests, completing a long-debated overhaul of ethics and lobbying rules spurred by scandals that rocked Capitol Hill.

The measure grew out of a pledge by Democrats to "drain the swamp" after they won majorities in both congressional chambers in last fall's elections. It passed the Senate, 83-14, after clearing the House, 411-8, earlier this week.

The legislation would ban lobbyist-paid gifts, limit privately funded travel and double to two years the "cooling off" period that senators must wait after leaving Capitol Hill before they can lobby their former colleagues. For ex-House members, the waiting period remains one year.

The measure would require senators to pay the full charter rate to fly on corporate jets; the House decided to ban its members from traveling in such fashion. And it would require the disclosure of campaign contributions gathered by lobbyists from clients, friends and others, a practice known as "bundling" that has been used to curry favor with lawmakers.

"Regardless of how reforms might inconvenience us or impact our personal lifestyles, our priority must be to convince our constituents that we are here to advocate their best interests, not those of well-connected lobbyists," said Sen. Russell D. Feingold (D-Wis.), one of the bill's leading advocates.

The most heated debate over the legislation concerned rules to shine a light on earmarking -- the controversial practice popular with lawmakers from both parties through which funding for pet projects has been quietly slipped into bills. The new ethics package would require public disclosure of the project and its sponsor; in the past, earmarks often were anonymously added to legislation with no public notice.

The practice played a role in scandals involving ex-lobbyist Jack Abramoff and former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R-Rancho Santa Fe), both of whom are serving prison terms.

In the Senate vote, all the lawmakers opposing the measure were Republicans, including John McCain of Arizona. Among the six senators running for president in their parties, McCain was the only one to vote against the bill.

He has long railed against "pork-barrel spending," and he argued that the bill did not go far enough to ensure earmarks would be carefully scrutinized. "This bill does far too little to rein in wasteful spending," he said.

His position meant that he broke with Feingold, his co-sponsor of the controversial 2002 campaign finance bill that sought to limit the influence of money in politics.

White House spokeswoman Emily Lawrimore said the administration also was concerned that the earmark provisions were not "as strong as we'd like." As to whether Bush would sign it, she said, "We're continuing to review the legislation."

Critics complained that the measure would leave it to the Senate majority leader and committee chairmen to certify whether the disclosure rules were being followed. That, said Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), was akin to allowing "the fox to guard the henhouse."

DeMint opposed the bill, as did Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), who termed it "not a landmark accomplishment, but a landmark betrayal."

McCain's opposition put him at odds with past "good government" allies, including Common Cause, the citizens lobby group.

"I'm sorry that they are supporting this measure," McCain said. "But I know, even better than them, how this system works."

The bill's supporters countered that earmarks and their congressional sponsors would be online for public perusal at least 48 hours before a spending bill was considered. Lawmakers also would have to attest that neither they nor immediate family members would financially benefit from an earmark.

Feingold contended the measure would provide "an enormous improvement over the way earmarks had been handled by both Democratic and Republican-controlled Congresses in the past."

Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), a presidential candidate who, like McCain, has worked to cultivate an image as a reformer, said he saw "a lot of good" in the bill.

Obama said more needed to be done, such as creating an independent office to enforce ethics rules. He also said he would continue to push for a "real discussion" about public financing for congressional elections.

"Even if we can stop lobbyists from buying us lunch or taking us out on junkets, they'll still be able to attend our fundraisers," he said.

The debate prompted Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.), chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee who has a long record of funneling government spending to his home state, to take to the Senate floor to defend earmarking. "This notion that earmarking spending is inherently wasteful spending is flat-out wrong," he said.

California Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, both Democrats, backed the bill.


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