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Bush signs bill to tighten lobbying rules

The law curbs private entities' ability to give gifts to lawmakers.

September 15, 2007|Richard Simon | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — President Bush on Friday signed into law a long-debated ethics bill aimed at reining in lobbyists' influence, including a curb on their ability to lavish gifts on lawmakers.

But a favorite activity for many lawmakers still will be allowed -- accepting free tickets to college sporting events.

Lobbyists for public universities are among those who will remain exempt from a gift ban that will apply to other lobbyists, an incongruity that has drawn criticism. Also exempt are lobbyists for state and local governments and other public agencies.

"Private lobbyists can't buy members [of Congress] a sandwich, but public lobbyists can still lavish meals, sports tickets, and trips on us. It's a huge loophole that this bill ignores," said Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.).

The legislation, lauded by backers as the most sweeping overhaul of ethics rules for Congress since the Watergate era, was passed in response to a spate of scandals that helped Democrats win control of the Congress in last fall's elections.

While Democrats cheered the bill as a major legislative triumph, a less enthusiastic Bush signed it without fanfare.

In a statement, he said the measure represented progress, but expressed hope that Congress would do more to crack down on lawmakers' earmarking federal money for pet projects.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco), however, declared that the new law helped fulfill the pledge by Democrats to "drain the swamp" of corruption.

The measure limits privately funded travel by lawmakers. It also requires lobbyists to disclose campaign contributions they gather from clients, friends and others, a practice known as bundling that has gained attention in recent weeks because of Norman Hsu, the disgraced fundraiser for Democratic presidential candidate and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York.

Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), a Clinton rival for the party's nomination, introduced legislation to force federal candidates to disclose their largest bundlers and the amounts raised.

The measure dictates that lawmakers make public the projects they slip into legislation, though Bush said it includes loopholes that could shield these earmarks from scrutiny. The law doubles -- to two years -- the period that defeated or retired senators must wait before lobbying former colleagues. It also denies congressional pensions to lawmakers convicted of felonies.

The law was spurred by scandals that sent former Republican Reps. Randy "Duke" Cunningham of Rancho Santa Fe and Bob Ney of Ohio and former lobbyist Jack Abramoff to prison. A number of other lawmakers, in both parties, have also come under scrutiny.

Democrats were eager to highlight the ethics bill as a major accomplishment at a time when Congress' public approval rating was suffering.

"I'm very hopeful that this is the start of a new day in Washington," said Sen. Russell D. Feingold (D-Wis.).

The loophole that exempts public agencies from the gift ban has come under attack from a number of watchdog groups. Critics point out that local and state agencies, including public universities, spent about $132 million last year on lobbying, often for earmarks.

Despite the exemption, the law will put into effect "far-reaching ethics and lobbying reforms that will help to protect the integrity of Congress and the interests of the American people," said Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, which has worked to reduce the role of money in politics.

Wertheimer said that he expected Congress to close the loophole exempting local and state agencies from the gift ban.

"There shouldn't be a distinction that allows state universities that have lobbyists to give tickets as gifts and prohibits private universities from doing the same thing," he said. "They all ought to be prohibited, and we are hopeful that this can be fixed sometime in the near future."

Mary Boyle of Common Cause said the exemption was "not a high priority concern."

"We do not think this is a big area of abuse, especially compared to the very significant abuses addressed in the bill as a whole," she said, but added that the organization would advocate change if the practice were being abused.

Policies about free tickets to lawmakers vary among state universities. And it is difficult to determine how many lawmakers receive free tickets because few lawmakers disclose such items.

A University of Texas spokesman said, "Free tickets are offered to members of Congress as a gesture of goodwill and in appreciation for the service lawmakers provide to the state."

The University of Oklahoma makes one discounted season football ticket available to lawmakers at a cost of $79; it normally sells for $379. All but one member of the state's congressional delegation took advantage of the offer this year.

"We always welcome the opportunity to bring legislators to our campus," university President David L. Boren, a former U.S. senator from Oklahoma, said in a statement. "Their visits give us the chance to make them aware of our academic and research programs which are of great benefit to our state."

Scott Sudduth, University of California's assistant vice president of federal governmental relations, said he has distributed "no more than a dozen" free tickets to lawmakers for football games in the last decade.

So far this season, he hasn't received any requests from lawmakers for free tickets.

"But you know what, toward the end of the season, if Cal and UCLA are ranked in the Top Ten, we'll probably get some requests," he said.

--

richard.simon@latimes.com

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