Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Senate Rejects New Office to Investigate Ethics Violations

ABC News
Senate Nixes New Ethics Violations Office
Senate Rejects New Office to Investigate Ethics Violations
The Associated Press

WASHINGTON - The Senate on Tuesday rejected the notion that it could not discipline itself, defeating a proposal to create an office to investigate possible ethics violations.

Senators rejected the idea of an Office of Public Integrity by a 67-30 vote as they moved toward a Wednesday vote on legislation to tighten rules and laws covering congressional contacts with lobbyists. With Congress trying to restore its scandal-tainted reputation before the fall election, passage is a near-certainty.

Opposition to the new office was led by members of the existing ethics committee. They insisted that the current system of self-policing was working fine and the proposed office would duplicate their work.

It's "off-target and unnecessary," said Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio, chairman of the six-member ethics committee. "It will simply replicate the tasks that the ethics committee does every day."

Many advocates of a lobbying overhaul, joined by clean government advocacy groups, have maintained that an independent ethics commission must be an important of any legislation. They say the ethics committees, particularly in the more partisan House, have proved incapable of addressing the lobbying scandals and ethical problems that have plagued Congress in recent years.

"It's very difficult for us to investigate ourselves," said Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee and co-sponsor of the amendment with the committee's Democratic leader, Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn.

The new office, she said, "would remove the cloud of doubt and suspicion that often hangs over members of Congress unfairly."

With the approval rating of Congress down to about 25 percent, said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., "shouldn't we do what we can to fix either a real or imagined problem that we have with the people that we serve?"

Collins' own committee this month rejected the idea of the ethics office, reflecting the strong resistance to what some saw as an attempt to undermine the constitutional duty of lawmakers to set their own rules. Before the proposal went to the full Senate, Collins changed it to reduce the powers of an ethics office, assuring that the ethics committee would retain authority over investigations and could overrule the office. The proposal was rejected nonetheless.

The Senate approved, by 84-13, a proposal by Sens. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, to end the practice of secret "holds" in which a single senator can block action on legislation.

The amendment requires a lawmaker who holds up legislation to identify himself. Senators who put holds on legislation, sometimes to gain leverage on other bills or issues they are promoting, "ought to have guts enough" to let the public know, Grassley said.

Normally it takes a 60-vote majority to overcome a hold and proceed to a vote on a blocked bill or nomination.

The Senate lobbying bill is a response to the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal and other ethical questions that have rocked Congress in the past year. The measure would ban lawmakers from accepting meals from lobbyists, require lobbyists to make quarterly reports of their contacts with lawmakers, and force lawmakers to wait two years before accepting jobs lobbying Congress, compared with the current one-year moratorium.

The bill also sets up a procedure by which lawmakers can try to eliminate from legislation those earmarks, or specific projects, that often are inserted without the knowledge or vote of other members.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., has told senators he wants to start debate on immigration reform legislation this week, pressing them to finish up work on the lobbying bill.

One other major issue still to be addressed is whether to ban travel on corporate jets. The current bill requires lobbyists to disclose itemized expenditures for any travel for public officials they arrange. The House has yet to take up similar legislation emphasizing greater disclosure of lobbyist activity.

The Senate debated the legislation while House Republicans stepped up their call for a measure reining in outside political groups that are permitted to accept donations of unlimited size. Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Va., said the proposal would close a loophole that exists despite enactment of a law in 2002 banning federal office holders and candidates as well as the political parties from accepting unlimited donations.

"Our goal is to make sure our constituents know we are acting with integrity," said Cantor, a member of the GOP leadership. He and other Republicans cited a report by the Treasury Department's inspector general that said these groups may owe as much as $9.4 million in taxes on donations they received before filing necessary paperwork with the government.

They released a letter urging Internal Revenue Service Commissioner Mark Everson to prosecute "to the fullest extent of the law" groups that failed to pay their taxes or disclose information about their donors.

Republicans earlier made clear they hope to reduce the clout of these groups, arguing that Democrats benefit disproportionately from their existence.

On the Net:

Information on the bill, S. 2349, can be found at