Sunday, February 19, 2006

Promise to Shore Up Ethics Loses Speed
Promise to Shore Up Ethics Loses Speed
GOP Schedule Slips In House; Senate Panels to Act Soon
By Jeffrey H. Birnbaum
Washington Post Staff Writer

The rush to revise ethics laws in the wake of the Jack Abramoff political corruption scandal has turned into more of a saunter.

A month ago, Republican leaders in Congress called legislation on the topic their first priority, and promised quick action on a measure that would alter the rules governing the interaction between lawmakers and lobbyists.

But now they do not anticipate final approval of such a measure until late March at the earliest.

The primary holdup is in the House. Republican lawmakers left Thursday for a week-long recess without agreeing on a proposal that would serve as a starting point for debate. Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) had been working with House Rules Committee Chairman David Dreier (R-Calif.) to devise such a plan and had expected to finish by now.

Their progress was slowed by the election two weeks ago of a new majority leader, Rep. John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), who has a different notion of what "reform" should entail and who challenged parts of Hastert's plan.

In mid-January, Hastert proposed broad new restrictions on lobbying, including a ban on privately funded travel for lawmakers and tight limits on meals and other gifts.

But Boehner and many rank-and-file Republicans objected to his recommendations and have said they would prefer beefing up disclosure of lobbyists' activities rather than imposing new restrictions.

As a result, House Republicans are still talking about where to begin. "The speaker wants to gain a consensus on this legislation, introduce it . . . and complete it by the end of March so he can get onto other business," said Ronald D. Bonjean Jr., Hastert's spokesman.

Previously, Hastert's office had said it wanted to finish work by mid-March.

Government watchdog groups are disappointed by the pace. "Particularly in the House, the progress is very slow and may end up with very little reform," said Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.

Talks on the issue among House Republicans will go on through the break and continue when lawmakers return at the end of this month, Bonjean said. The measure that emerges would then go through the committee process before reaching the floor, he added, a procedure that commonly takes weeks or months.

"It's important that the leadership listen to all the House Republican members' ideas on the issue before moving forward so we have thought through every possibility," Bonjean said.

The Senate, which started out lagging behind the House, plans to move its legislation first. The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee has scheduled a drafting session for a lobbying bill during the week that begins Feb. 27. The Senate Rules and Administration Committee plans to write its own bill on Feb. 28.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) has said that he wants to take up the lobbying issue on the floor the following week. As of last week, however, senior Republican aides in the Senate did not know how the two separate measures would be dealt with at that time.

Nonetheless, both bills that are going to be considered by the Senate panels are likely to lean toward expanding disclosure requirements rather than proscribing lawmakers' behavior.

The starting point for the governmental affairs committee's session will be a proposal by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a committee spokeswoman said. The McCain plan would require lobbyists to disclose all gifts of $20 or more and would increase disclosure of privately paid trips, but would not impose a ban.

The rules committee's deliberations will begin with a bill by its chairman, Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.), in consultation with the panel's senior Democrat, Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (Conn.).

Although that proposal is not yet complete, Lott is known to favor additional transparency for lobbying and campaign fundraising. "He's expressed a belief that when everybody knows what's going on, we're that much farther along to improving the system," Lott spokeswoman Susan Irby said.

Irby added that Lott would also consider other proposals that deal with gifts, meals, travel, former senators' access to the Senate floor, and the so-called revolving-door question: How long a former lawmaker or congressional staffer must wait before returning to Capitol Hill to lobby former colleagues.

Lott's committee will also propose ways to rein in so-called earmarks, which are narrowly focused appropriations that benefit individual communities and companies. These have become controversial as they have proliferated over the past decade.

The McCain bill would double to two years the length of time that former congressional officials are barred from lobbying. Lott's position on that issue is not known. The House voted Feb. 1 to bar former lawmakers from going onto the House floor or using the House gymnasium.

McCain would vastly expand the amount of detail that lobbyists would be required to report about their meetings with lawmakers and their aides. In addition, he would mandate the disclosure of grass-roots lobbying for the first time.

Currently only direct lobbying of lawmakers needs to be disclosed. McCain would ask lobbyists to report in some detail how much indirect lobbying, such as organizing voters back home, they do. The senator would also require lobbyists to reveal the amount of money they contribute to lawmakers and their pet causes.

Outside groups including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce have complained about proposals, including McCain's grass-roots plan, that they said would burden lobbying groups such as themselves with additional paperwork and potentially chill public debate. They also have protested as excessive and counterproductive proposals that would cut into their ability to take lawmakers and staff aides on educational trips.

Democrats have offered a variety of proposals that would impose stiff restrictions on privately paid meals and travel and, like McCain, would add grass-roots disclosures to the existing regimen.

Once the lobbying legislation hits the Senate floor, no one can predict what will happen. According to a senior Republican aide who declined to be identified because of the sensitivity of the legislation, the bill could begin with a limited amount of disclosure enhancements, but could end up banning lobbyist gifts and travel.

"The politics of this is so explosive that there's the possibility that anything that's put out there might be trumped and senators would be unable to vote 'no,' " the aide said.