Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Watchdogs say House ethics reform is a "scam"

Watchdogs say House ethics reform is a "scam"
By Andy Sullivan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Congressional watchdogs blasted an ethics reform bill pending in the House of Representatives on Tuesday as a "scam" that would do little to curb the influence of money in politics.

"This legislation is so weak it's embarrassing," said Chellie Pingree, president of Common Cause, a group promoting accountability in government.

House Republican leaders hope to pass a bill this week that requires more disclosure of lobbyist activity and temporarily ban privately-funded travel until after the November congressional elections. The bill is a response to corruption scandals that have ensnared several lawmakers and staffers.

Watchdog groups said the bill would not change the intimate relationship between lawmakers and the lobbyists who shower them with campaign contributions and other perks.

"This bill is based on the premise that you can fool all of the people all of the time. This is an attempt at one of the greatest legislative scams that I have seen in 30 years of working on these issues," said Fred Wertheimer, president of the advocacy group Democracy 21.

House Rules Committee Chairman David Dreier, the California Republican who sponsored the bill, said it represents the best compromise in a body still sharply divided on exactly what reforms are needed.

"Rostenkowski said if everybody's unhappy with a piece of legislation, it's probably a pretty good bill," Dreier said, citing Dan Rostenkowski, a former veteran Illinois Democratic lawmaker who pleaded guilty to mail fraud in 1996 and spent 15 months in prison.

Corruption scandals have prompted Congress to reexamine its relationship with the $2 billion a year lobbying industry.

Former California Republican Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham is serving an eight-year prison sentence after pleading guilty to taking $2.4 million in bribes.

Two former aides to former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay have pleaded guilty to corruption charges and are cooperating with investigators in a separate scandal centered around former lobbyist Jack Abramoff. DeLay, a Texas Republican, has not been charged in the scandal but recently announced that he will resign from Congress.

Unlike a reform bill passed by the Senate last month, the House bill would allow lawmakers to continue to accept gifts and meals worth up to $50 from lobbyists, and does not lengthen the current one-year "cooling off" period before a former lawmaker can begin to lobby his former colleagues.

Other measures that would have required lobbyists to report details about fund-raising events and campaign work have been dropped from the bill.

The bill would make it easier to remove special projects that lawmakers often quietly slip into large spending bills, but not "earmarks" inserted in other bills.

House Majority Leader John Boehner said the temporary ban on lobbyist-funded travel would give the Ethics Committee time to set up a mechanism to check trips before they take place.

"I'm frankly very proud of the bill that we have, it's a very substantial bill. The critics will be the critics," Boehner said. (Additional reporting by Richard Cowan)