Friday, January 05, 2007

House Bans Lobbyist Gifts, Business-Sponsored Travel

Yahoo! News
House Bans Lobbyist Gifts, Business-Sponsored Travel
Jonathan D. Salant

Jan. 4 (Bloomberg) -- The U.S. House of Representatives, after installing its new Democratic leadership, voted to ban lawmakers from flying on corporate jets and accepting gifts and meals from lobbyists.

The House passed, 430-1, a package of rules aimed at demonstrating Democrats' commitment to cleaning up Congress. Tomorrow, the House will vote on rules designed to end the anonymous sponsorship of pet projects, or earmarks, that have been quietly tucked into spending measures.

``The culture of the last Congress came to be defined by a phrase now common to Americans throughout the country: it was a culture of corruption,'' said House Rules Committee Chairwoman Louise Slaughter, a New York Democrat. ``The American people stated loud and clear that they were ready for a new culture to take hold in Washington: a culture of commitment.''

As the Democrats won control of the House and Senate for the first time in 12 years, exit polls from the November election showed the issue resonated with voters. In a CNN exit poll, 42 percent of respondents said the issue was ``extremely important.''

``This is legislation I wish we had done,'' said Representative Christopher Shays (news, bio, voting record), a Connecticut Republican. ``I'm sorry it took a Democratic majority to do it.''

Four Republican House members resigned last year -- Randy ``Duke'' Cunningham of California after he admitted taking bribes; former Majority Leader Tom DeLay, indicted on money- laundering charges in Texas; Bob Ney of Ohio, who pleaded guilty to taking gifts from lobbyist Jack Abramoff in exchange for legislative favors; and Mark Foley of Florida, who sent suggestive e-mails to teenage pages.

`Edge of the Cliff'

``We pushed ethics to the very edge of the cliff and hoped the public would be interested in other things,'' Shays said. ``When Mark Foley came up, it pushed us over the cliff.''

Republican Dan Burton of Indiana cast the only vote against the rules adopted today.

House Republicans complained that the ethics rules were being rushed through without a chance to offer alternatives.

``We never even had an opportunity to have our amendments denied in the Rules Committee,'' said Representative David Dreier (news, bio, voting record) of California, chief sponsor of a Republican ethics proposal that failed to become law in the last Congress. That legislation was criticized as ineffective by Shays, Democrats and outside advocates.

Today's action may be a prelude to a more significant fight over reducing corruption and influence-buying. That could come in about two months after a task force formed by Pelosi, a California Democrat, and Minority Leader John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, announces whether it supports an outside ethics office to enforce the new rules. For now, members of Congress police themselves through a bipartisan ethics committee.

Honest Government

Those demanding more open and honest government say only independent enforcement will guarantee success.

``If you're not going to enforce the rules, it doesn't matter what they are,'' said former federal prosecutor Melanie Sloan, director of the Washington-based Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics.

The rules passed today apply only to House members and don't require any further congressional action or the signature of President George W. Bush. The proposed enforcement mechanism for the House and Senate would require passage by both houses and Bush's signature.

There is concern that the Senate, where 41 senators can block any action, may not go along in adopting strong ethics regulations. The Senate, with Democrats in control 51-49, is scheduled to begin debate on ethics legislation Jan. 8.

The House rules ban lobbyists and the organizations they work for from arranging overnight trips. Nonprofit foundations affiliated with lobbying groups could continue to pay for trips approved in advance by the House ethics committee.

Daylong Trips

Lobbying groups can sponsor daylong trips to factories or forums for lawmakers and their staffs.

``We want them to be able to see a manufacturing facility,'' said Jay Timmons, chief lobbyist for the National Association of Manufacturers in Washington, a trade group with members including Pittsburgh-based PPG Industries Inc. and Benton Harbor, Michigan- based Whirlpool Corp. ``They're able to take that experience back to their jobs.''

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, said he would begin by bringing up ethics legislation that passed last year when Republicans were in control. Groups such as Common Cause and Public Citizen say it isn't strong enough.

``I'm astounded the Senate Democratic leadership doesn't see the opportunity they have to step up to the plate,'' said Craig Holman, a campaign finance lobbyist for Washington-based Public Citizen.

`Strongest Possible'

Reid spokesman Jim Manley said the Senate measure that passed last year -- and stalled when the House and Senate couldn't agree on the provisions -- is just a starting point. ``Senator Reid is interested in getting the strongest possible legislation,'' he said.

Democratic Senators Russell Feingold of Wisconsin and Barack Obama of Illinois said today they will propose adopting the House restrictions on travel, letting senators use corporate jets if they pay the charter rate, and doubling to two years the waiting period before former lawmakers can become lobbyists.

Feingold and Obama also would require lobbyists to disclose fund-raisers they hold, and ban them from holding events to honor lawmakers at national party conventions.

Each house has its own ethics committee, split evenly between Republicans and Democrats, to investigate wrongdoing and punish it. The committees decide whether to undertake inquiries and have been criticized for lax enforcement.

``You've got to make the rules tough enough, and you have to have strong enforcement,'' said Feingold, whose proposal also calls for an independent ethics office.

Paul Miller, immediate past president of the American League of Lobbyists, said the system works and shouldn't be changed.

``Let's not overreact,'' he said. ``It has proven to be effective. Everyone who broke the law is going to prison.''

To contact the reporter on this story: Jonathan D. Salant in Washington at .