Monday, January 16, 2006

Democrats Preparing Proposal on Congressional Code of Conduct, Including Ban on Lobbyist Gifts

ABC News
Dems Ready Proposal on Code of Conduct
Democrats Preparing Proposal on Congressional Code of Conduct, Including Ban on Lobbyist Gifts
The Associated Press

WASHINGTON - Democrats intend to unveil a sweeping plan this week to tighten Congress' code of conduct, officials said Saturday night, including a ban on lobbyists' gifts to lawmakers and a crackdown on special interest provisions slipped into legislation in the final moments before passage.

Eager to claim the mantle of reform in the wake of an election-year corruption scandal, Democrats also will propose doubling the current one-year cooling off period that former lawmakers or senior aides must observe before they are allowed to lobby without restriction.

The ban on lobbyist gifts would include meals and tickets to sporting or entertainment events as well as travel, according to officials familiar with the proposals.

The party's top leaders in Congress, Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada and Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California, are scheduled to announce the Democratic proposals on Wednesday.

The officials who described their plans did so on condition of anonymity, saying they were not authorized to pre-empt the formal announcement.

Republicans hold a majority in both houses of Congress, and beginning last year, Democrats signaled their intention of making ethics an issue in the 2006 elections.

Their efforts have intensified since lobbyist Jack Abramoff, a lobbyist with close ties to senior House Republicans, pleaded guilty earlier this month to federal charges of conspiracy, mail fraud and tax evasion in a wide-ranging corruption investigation.

Republicans responded rapidly to the guilty plea, hoping to limit the political fallout. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., and Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., have both announced plans to consider changes in rules or law to limit the impact lobbyists have on members of Congress. Both men are considering bans on gifts and privately funded travel, and waiting to hear recommendations from fellow Republicans on other measures.

At the same time, Republicans have yet to agree on a comprehensive approach, as Pelosi and Reid intend to do. Howard Dean, the Democratic party chairman, is scheduled to travel to Ohio on Wednesday to stress the same issue. The state's Republican governor, Bob Taft, pleaded no contest last summer to charges that he failed to report numerous golf outings since taking office in 1999.

The Democratic proposals would end practices that Abramoff used frequently to court members of Congress.

Investigators have said that at a Washington restaurant Abramoff once owned, for example, the staff had a list of lawmakers who were permitted to dine on the owner's tab whenever they were present.

Current rules permit lawmakers to accept gifts of up to $50 in value. But there is no aggregate annual limit on the gifts they are allowed to take.

The practice of making changes in legislation shortly before a final vote is a time-honored one in Congress. In the Senate, it is not unusual for key lawmakers seeking additional votes for their bill to insert last-minute changes.

Pelosi and Reid intend to call for curbs on the practice, requiring that printed copies of legislation, including last-minute amendments, be given to all lawmakers 24 hours before a vote, officials said.

The requirement could be waived under terms that effectively require the agreement of the minority party.