WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- With disgraced former California Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham eligible to collect a congressional pension from behind bars, the Senate voted yesterday to deny taxpayer-funded retirement benefits to lawmakers convicted in the future of serious ethics offenses.
The action came as the Senate moves toward enacting ethics reforms, including stricter rules to end the secrecy around earmarking, a practice that contributed to congressional scandals involving Cunningham and lobbyist Jack Abramoff.
Critics have denounced the practice, in which lawmakers secretly slip pet projects into spending bills, often without public notice and at the request of lobbyists who contribute to their campaigns. And they had accused the Senate's new Democratic leadership of writing a loophole-riddled bill that would have failed to publicly identify the sponsors of most earmarks.
But yesterday, Sen. Jim DeMint, a South Carolina Republican who is a leading critic of earmarking, said that he and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, reached agreement "so that every earmark is disclosed."
The deal came as the Senate voted 87-0 to expand the list of crimes under which a former lawmaker could be denied a pension to include bribery, conspiracy and perjury. Federal employees in all branches of government already forfeit their pensions if convicted of "crimes against the United States," such as treason.
"The best way to restore and rebuild the trust of the American people is to ensure that we stand firmly against members of Congress who betray the public trust," said Sen. John Kerry, a Massachusetts Democrat and the measure's sponsor.
The legislation would not apply retroactively. Kerry said such a law would be unconstitutional.
Cunningham, a California Democrat, is serving an eight-year prison term after pleading guilty to taking $2.4 million in bribes from defense contractors who sought earmarks and to evading more than $1 million in taxes. He is eligible for an estimated $64,000 annual pension with his military service, including $36,000 a year from his eight terms in Congress.
An attorney for Cunningham declined to comment.
The measure enjoys strong bipartisan support in the House.
"The fact that the Senate passed it puts a lot of pressure on the House to do the same," said Rep. Lee Terry, a Nebraska Democrat, sponsor of a similar measure in the House.