Thursday, May 04, 2006

House passes bill it calls ethics-reform - but is it really?

House passes ethics-reform bill
By Andy Sullivan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Rattled by corruption scandals, the House of Representatives narrowly passed a package of ethics reforms on Wednesday that Democrats decried as a "sham, which would do little to clean up Congress.

The House voted 217 to 213, largely along party lines, to require greater disclosure of political lobbying activities and highlight special-interest "earmarks" hidden in some large spending bills.

Only eight Democrats voted for the bill, while 20 Republicans voted against it.

The bill, supported by the White House, must be reconciled with a separate reform bill passed by the Senate in March.

A string of corruption cases have cast a spotlight on the cozy relationship between lawmakers and Washington's $2 billion lobbying industry, and with congressional elections scheduled for November Republican leaders have made lobbying reform a priority.

"This bill will fulfill the public's right to know who is seeking to influence their Congress," said the bill's sponsor, California Rep. David Dreier. "It will not permit business as usual, it will not perpetuate the status quo."

Democrats, who have made corruption a central theme of their campaign to recapture a control of Congress, said the bill is only designed to create the illusion of reform and does nothing to curb the influence of money in politics.

"This bill is a sham and by promoting it as a real reform measure Republicans are lying to the American people," said New York Democratic Rep. Louise Slaughter.


The bill would require lobbyists to file disclosure forms electronically four times a year, instead of twice a year.

Lawmakers would need prior approval from colleagues on the ethics committee before flying on corporate jets or taking privately funded trips.

Earmarks -- a spending measure that devotes funds for a specific purpose, often to help a lawmaker's own district or pet project -- will have to listed along with the lawmaker who sponsors them, in each of the sprawling spending bills that keep the government running.

Republican leaders have promised to broaden the earmark provision to apply to other spending bills as well when they reconcile it with the Senate's ethics bill.

Unlike the Senate bill, the House version does not prevent lobbyists from buying lawmakers gifts or meals worth less than $50, and it does not extend the current one-year "cooling off" period a lawmaker must wait before lobbying his former colleagues.

Corruption has cast a shadow over the House in recent months.

Former California Republican Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham is serving an eight-year prison sentence for accepting $2.4 million in bribes, while two former staffers of former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay have pleaded guilty to corruption in another scandal centered around former lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

On the Democratic side, Louisiana Rep. William Jefferson is under investigation for taking bribes in a Nigerian telecommunications venture, while West Virginia Rep. Alan Mollohan recently stepped down from the ethics committee amid questions about his real-estate holdings.