Bill "should change the way business is done in Washington
Wed Aug 1, 2007 01:34

Bill "should change the way business is done in Washington

House votes to embrace ethics overhaul

By CHARLES BABINGTON, Associated Press Writer 45 minutes ago

The House voted overwhelmingly Tuesday to make lawmakers disclose more details of their efforts to fund pet projects and raise money from lobbyists, responding to a rash of recent scandals.

The Democratic-drafted legislation followed cases that sent two GOP lawmakers and a big-time lobbyist to prison and saw a House Democrat charged with bribery.

Senate leaders hope to give it final passage this week, even as the chamber's most senior Republican faces questions about Monday's federal raid of his home as part of a bribery probe in Alaska.

The bill, which the House passed 411-8, would require lawmakers to disclose those lobbyists who raise $15,000 or more for them within a six-month period by "bundling" donations from many people. The requirement would cover party-affiliated campaign committees as well.

Lawmakers would be barred from accepting gifts, including meals and tickets, from lobbyists and their clients.

Senators seeking targeted spending projects, or "earmarks," would have to publicize their plans 48 hours before the Senate votes on the proposals. They would have to certify that they and their families would not directly benefit financially.

The House made similar changes to its rules governing earmarks in January.

Self-styled watchdog groups noted that the bill was less stringent in some respects than were earlier versions. But they hailed it as a major leap by an institution generally loathe to police itself.

"These are big-time fundamental reforms that will end the secrecy surrounding the multiple ways in which Washington lobbyists use money to curry favor and gain access and influence with members of Congress," said Fred Wertheimer, president of the nonprofit group Democracy21.

Common Cause said the bill "should change the way business is done in Washington by shining the light on the often mutually dependent relationships between lobbyists and members of Congress."

The bill would require former senators and top aides to wait two years before directly lobbying Congress. Ex-House members would have to wait one year. An earlier Senate version would have banned all lobbying activities for two years, not just direct contacts with lawmakers.

The bill would require senators, and candidates for the Senate or White House, to pay charter rates for trips on private planes. House members and candidates would be barred from accepting trips on private planes.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., predicted the Senate will pass the bill this week, even though it requires 67 votes in the 100-member chamber because it changes Senate rules.

The "landmark legislation" will combat the "culture of corruption developed in the last number of years here in Washington," Reid told reporters in a Capitol hallway where, moments earlier, Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens had dodged questions about Monday's search of his home by federal agents.

Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., said he will fight the bill because it "guts key earmark reforms." He noted that, unlike a previously adopted version, it would allow the majority party's leaders — not the Senate parliamentarian_ to rule on whether earmark disclosure requirements have been met in bills reaching the Senate floor.

Dissident senators would not be able to challenge the ruling, but they could try to strike an unreported earmark by offering an amendment.

Senate Minority Whip Trent Lott, R-Miss., said some Republicans think a nonpartisan "third party or parliamentarian" should rule on such disclosure matters, but he stopped short of saying he would oppose the bill.

Liberal-leaning groups said the less-than-perfect bill is far better than nothing. "There is no credible excuse to oppose this legislation," said Meredith McGehee of the Campaign Legal Center.

The legislation marks Congress' most far-reaching reaction to scandals involving former lobbyist Jack Abramoff and former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham, R-Calif. Both men are now in prison on corruption charges that in some cases involved congressional earmarks.

Reform advocates said the bill's main achievement involves greater disclosure of lobbyists who "bundle" campaign donations to lawmakers by soliciting checks from numerous people. Under current disclosure laws, their efforts often go undetected, but the lawmakers are well aware of the help they received.

Earlier versions of the bill would have required lobbyist-bundlers to disclose their contributions to federal candidates. But many lawmakers preferred to control such reports themselves.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., declined to say whether he would support the bill. He noted that an objection from Republican Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina — who shares some of Coburn's concerns — prevented House and Senate negotiators from working on a final draft in conference.

"As a result of that, none of our people were involved in the final product," McConnell told reporters Tuesday. "But in a sense, we made it difficult on ourselves because one of our members prevented us from going to conference."

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press.

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