WASHINGTON -- Former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham has been gone from Congress for more than a year, but his criminal acts loomed large yesterday in the chamber where he once served: His former colleagues voted unanimously to deny tax-funded pensions in the future to lawmakers-turned-felons.
The measure, which the former California Republican congressman once supported, won't affect him or any other lawmakers already convicted of crimes, including ex-Rep. Bob Ney, an Ohio Republican who was sentenced Friday to 2 1/2 years in prison for his dealings with lobbyist Jack Abramoff. The bill's sponsors said it cannot legally be applied retroactively.
"There is an ethical stain on this institution, and the American people are no longer willing to tolerate corrupt behavior by their elected officials," said Rep. John Shadegg, an Arizona Republican.
Cunningham, who is serving an eight-year prison term after pleading guilty to taking $2.4 million in bribes and evading more than $1 million in taxes, is eligible for an estimated $64,000 annual pension with his military service, including $36,000 a year from his eight terms in Congress, according to the National Taxpayers Union.
Ney will be eligible to draw a congressional pension of about $29,000 a year when he turns 62 in 2016, the group estimated.
The pension measure has been debated for years but never made it through Congress. Now, the measure appears likely to become law after an election in which corruption was a major issue, helping Democrats to gain control of Congress.
The Senate has approved a similar measure as part of a broader ethics and lobbying reform bill, but freshman Rep. Nancy Boyda, a Kansas Democrat who wrote the House bill, hopes the Senate will take up her bill and pass it as a separate measure.
"Why should taxpayers fund a comfortable retirement for a crooked congressman?" asked Boyda, who was among the newly elected Democrats who highlighted congressional scandals in their campaigns. "The answer, of course, is that we shouldn't. Corrupt politicians deserve prison sentences, not taxpayer-funded pensions."
The measure was approved 431-0. But Republicans complained that it omitted a number of crimes that should be grounds for requiring lawmakers to forfeit pensions.
Now, lawmakers can lose their pensions if convicted of a crime against the United States, such as treason. Under the House measure, bribery, conspiracy and perjury would be added to the list.
Rep. Mark Steven Kirk, a Illinois Republican, contended that the list should include 17 other felonies, such as income tax evasion, wire fraud, intimidation to secure contributions or racketeering.
"I will support the bill," Kirk said, "but it falls 17 felonies short of the reforms needed to improve the ethics of this House."
Richard Simon writes for the Los Angeles Times.