Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Democrats offer bill to clean up Congress

Democrats offer bill to clean up Congress
By Thomas Ferraro

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. congressional Democratic leaders, who won power last year with the help of voter disgust over mostly Republican scandals, offered legislation on Monday to clean up how lawmakers do business.

Democrats said they hope to win passage of the measure in the House of Representatives and Senate -- and send it to President George W. Bush to sign into law -- before Congress begins a monthlong recess at the end of this week.

"We are fighting to enact the most sweeping ethics and lobbying reform in history so we can deliver to the American people a government as good and honest as the people it represents," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat.

It would require disclosure of campaign donations collected by lobbyists and delivered to lawmakers in so-called bundles, deny pensions to members of Congress convicted of bribery and prohibit lobbyists from providing lawmakers gifts or travel.

The measure would also prohibit members from attending lobbyist-paid parties in their honor at national political conventions, and require greater disclosure of pet projects, known as earmarks, slipped into big spending bills.

But some Republicans, whose party had controlled Congress much of the past 12 years, charged that the earmark disclosure provision was woefully inadequate.

Under it in the Senate, they complained, the majority leader could certify if earmarks met disclosure requirements.


"This bill allows the fox to guard the henhouse and makes a joke of ethics reform," said Sen. Jim DeMint, a South Carolina Republican.

But Democrats noted the majority leader's certification could be appealed to the Senate parliamentarian, and subjected to a vote by the full chamber. House certification could be made by the committee chair with jurisdiction over the bill.

An aide to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, said his office was still reviewing the sweeping measure but "it sounds like the earmark provision will be really quite strict."

It would require that all earmarks in bills and in House-Senate conference reports, along with sponsors, be identified on the Internet before final congressional passage.

Craig Holman of Public Citizen, a public advocacy group, said, "It's a good bill. I'm pretty excited about it."

"Democrats are following through on our promise to change the way business is done in Washington," said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat.

Reid and Pelosi took the lead in drafting the measure after lawmakers haggled over changes and Republicans blocked efforts to begin final negotiations on the ethics and lobbying bills earlier passed by the two chambers.

While the war in Iraq was a major factor in last year's congressional elections, so was what Democrats denounced as a Republican "culture of corruption" on Capitol Hill.

This culture saw bribery convictions of Republican Reps. Bob Ney of Ohio and Randy "Duke" Cunningham of California and the downfall of convicted Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

But the perception of such problems has not been confined to Republicans. Democratic Rep. William Jefferson of Louisiana was indicted on bribery charges this year after $90,000 was found in his freezer. He has pleaded innocent.