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Senate approves major overhaul of ethics rules

The bill would ban gifts from lobbyists and curb secrecy in earmarks.

January 19, 2007|Richard Simon | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Seeking to repair Congress' tarred image, the Senate on Thursday overwhelmingly passed the toughest new ethics rules since the Watergate era.

The legislation is aimed at reining in the influence of special interests by forbidding lobbyists and their employers from buying meals and gifts for lawmakers and paying for their junkets.

It also seeks to end the secrecy surrounding efforts to secure federal funding for pet projects, a practice known as earmarking that figured prominently in several recent congressional scandals.

The ethics bill was the first one brought before the Senate by its newly elected Democratic majority after a campaign that highlighted congressional corruption. And the measure's supporters argued that it would ensure Capitol Hill handled its business in a more above-board fashion. "With their votes last November, the American people made it clear that they wanted us to change the way Washington works, and that's exactly what the Senate did today," said Sen. Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, the second-ranking Democrat in the chamber.

The measure passed 96 to 2; casting the "no" votes were Sens. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) and Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah). Sens. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) and Tim Johnson (D-S.D.) did not vote.

Even some of the bill's supporters, however, were skeptical about whether it would prevent corruption.

"We can write all the rules we want, but if a member of this body has the instincts of corruption in his soul, he will find a way around the rules," Sen. Robert F. Bennett (R-Utah) said during debate this week.

The bill does little to address the source of lobbyists' greatest influence: campaign contributions.

"While we are eliminating the $20 lunches and the club-level tickets to local sporting events, this bill does not address what is an even more pressing issue, namely the $10,000 campaign contributions" that come from corporate political action committees, said Sen. Bernard Sanders (I-Vt.).

Paul Miller, a former president of the American League of Lobbyists, noted that lobbyists still would be able to take senators to an expensive lunch -- so long as they pay for the meal as a campaign donation.

But ethics watchdogs, who often have cast a critical eye on lawmakers' proposals to toughen congressional rules, cheered the Senate action.

Fred Wertheimer, president of the group Democracy 21, said the measure contained "landmark ethics and lobbying reforms that respond to the deep concerns of the American people about corruption and ethics problems in Congress."

Still, Wertheimer and other reform advocates plan to continue to press for creation of an independent office to investigate ethics complaints against senators. As was the case last year, the Senate soundly rejected that proposal during debate.

The House acted on the first day of the new congressional session to tighten rules governing its members -- voting, for instance, to prohibit the lawmakers from hitching rides on corporate jets. Those rules are not affected by the Senate action.

On the broader issue of activities by lobbyists, House Democrats plan to draft a bill that touches on some of the same issues covered in the Senate legislation. Once the House gives its expected approval, the two chambers would need to reconcile any differences in their bills, and then a final bill would be sent to the president.

In some cases, the Senate bill would impose different rules than those adopted by the House. For example, senators would still be allowed to fly on corporate jets but would be required to pay charter rates instead of the less costly equivalent of a first-class ticket.

The Senate measure would require senators to disclose special-interest items they slip into bills, including certifying that they and their immediate family members have no financial stake in the earmark.

The legislation would require lobbyists to more frequently report their contacts with lawmakers and the campaign contributions they make.

Perhaps more important, lobbyists would be obliged to disclose the campaign donations they collect from relatives, friends and clients and then funnel to politicians -- a tactic that has enabled them to exert more influence as the cost of running for office has escalated.

The bill would double -- from one to two years -- the prohibition on former lawmakers lobbying Congress and would for the most part bar spouses of senators from lobbying any Senate office. Four Senate spouses are currently registered as lobbyists.

The measure also would deny congressional pensions to former lawmakers convicted in the future of serious ethics offenses.

This provision was sparked, in part, by the scandal surrounding former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R-Rancho Santa Fe), although it would not apply to him. Cunningham is in prison after pleading guilty in late 2005 to taking $2.4 million in bribes from defense contractors and evading more than $1 million in taxes.

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