Ethics bill would expose lawmakers' pet projects

Lawmakers pushing pet projects would have to shed more light on stealthy spending under legislation that Democratic leaders will try to move through the House and Senate this week.

The proposal, hailed by several open-government advocates, would require senators seeking so-called "earmarks" in spending bills to identify themselves and their proposed projects in publicly available data bases at least 48 hours before the Senate votes on them. They also would have to certify that they and their immediate family members have no financial interest in the proposed earmark.

In January the House made similar changes to its rules governing earmarks.

The legislation, if approved, would mark Congress' most far-reaching reactions to recent scandals, including those of former lobbyist Jack Abramoff and former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham, R-California. Both men are now in prison, having been convicted of corruption charges that in some cases involved congressional earmarks.

The legislation, released Monday and scheduled for a House vote Tuesday, "is landmark lobbying and ethics reform, and we strongly support it," said Fred Wertheimer, a longtime advocate of tougher ethics rules and director of Democracy21.

"This legislation will, for the first time, provide the public with information about the various ways in which lobbyists and lobbying organizations provide financial support and assistance to help members of Congress," he said.

Meredith McGehee, policy director of the Campaign Legal Center, said the bill "makes good on the promises of greater transparency from the new leadership."

"Opponents may claim they want a stronger bill," she said, but opposing it "would go far beyond letting the perfect be the enemy of the good."

However, aides to Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Oklahoma, issued a statement saying the bill "eviscerates earmark reform." Among other things, the statement complained that committee chairmen or the Senate majority leader, not the Senate parliamentarian, would rule on whether earmark disclosure requirements have been met.

Dissident senators would not be able to challenge the accuracy of the ruling, but they could try to strike an unreported earmark by offering an amendment.

Democrats promised a crackdown on lobbying abuses when they campaigned in 2006 against a "culture of corruption" in Congress, then controlled by Republicans. The new Democratic-controlled House and Senate quickly embraced tighter guidelines on lobbying, spending and fundraising in January. But efforts to reconcile differences and send a bill to the president bogged down in subsequent months.

Democratic leaders, eager to fulfill their campaign promise before the August recess, are pressing members to pass the measure quickly.

The bill would require lawmakers to disclose those lobbyists who raise $15,000 or more for them within a six-month period through a popular practice known as bundling. Bundlers solicit campaign checks from numerous people, but their efforts often go undetected under existing campaign finance disclosure laws.

Earlier versions of the bill would have required lobbyist-bundlers to disclose their contributions to federal candidates. But many lawmakers preferred to control such reports themselves.

Lobbyists would, however, have to disclose payments they make to presidential libraries, inaugural committees or organizations controlled by or named for members of Congress.

The measure would place some new limits on presidential candidates. Like senators, they would have to report bundled donations from lobbyists and pay full charter fare when traveling on private airplanes.

House members and candidates would be barred from accepting trips on private planes.

The new bill also would:

Prohibit lobbyists and their clients from giving gifts, including meals and tickets, to senators and their staffs. The House adopted a gift ban in January.

Bar lawmakers from attending large parties given in their honor by lobbyists at national political conventions.

Bar lawmakers and their aides from trying to influence hiring decisions by lobbying firms and others in exchange for political access.

Require former senators to wait two years before lobbying Congress in person. An earlier Senate version included a broader two-year ban on all lobbying activities, including those that do not involve direct contacts with lawmakers. Ex-House members would have a one-year "cooling off" period.

Deny retirement benefits to members of Congress convicted of bribery, perjury or similar crimes.

(Published by CNN, July 31, 2007)

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