Sweeping ethics bill wins House approval

The Baltimore Sun

WASHINGTON -- In the most sweeping overhaul of congressional ethics rules in a generation, the House overwhelmingly approved a bill yesterday aimed at curbing the influence of lobbyists and repairing Congress' corruption-sullied image.

Democrats promised to pass the bill after they won control of Congress following a campaign in which they denounced the Republican "culture of corruption" on Capitol Hill.

The measure is one of a number of accomplishments the Democratic majority, ridiculed by Republicans for its slim legislative record, hopes to deliver before lawmakers break at the end of the week for a monthlong summer recess. The Senate hopes to approve the identical bill this week and send it to President Bush for his signature.

The bill would impose many new rules on lawmakers and lobbyists, requiring reports on the campaign checks that lobbyists solicit from different contributors and denying congressional pensions to lawmakers convicted of felonies. It would even bar senators-turned-lobbyists from setting foot in the Senate gym.

"If there is one message abundantly clear based on the results of last year's election results, it was that the American people want us to end the culture of corruption that has enveloped the legislative process," said House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers Jr., a Michigan Democrat. "We've heard that message loud and clear."

The bill's 411-8 approval comes after two Republican lawmakers and former lobbyist Jack Abramoff were sent to prison on corruption charges. About a dozen current and former lawmakers have come under scrutiny.

All Maryland House members voted for the measure.

Bob Edgar, a former Democratic congressman from Pennsylvania who heads Common Cause, lauded the House action. "It was kind of a surprise to us that it passed as overwhelmingly as it did as quickly as it did," he said, saying the congressional agility was a response to widespread voter anger. "They want Congress to clean up its act."

For the first time, the bill would require disclosure of campaign contributions that lobbyists raise from clients, friends and others and then take credit for raising. The practice, known as bundling, is a major source of lobbyists' influence over Washington politicians. The bill would require congressional and presidential campaigns to report bundled donations of $15,000 or more collected in a six-month period.

The bill also aims to end the secret process that allows lawmakers to slip special-interest appropriations - often at a lobbyist's behest - into legislation. It would require disclosure of the names of the lawmakers behind the items. Earmarking has figured prominently in the congressional scandals.

Under the bill, lobbyists would have to disclose their activities more often; pay fines up to $200,000, raised from a maximum $50,000, for willful violations; and face a new criminal penalty of up to five years in prison for "knowingly and corruptly" violating the rules.

The bill also would bar lawmakers from attempting to pressure businesses into hiring lobbyists based on their political affiliation.

Some of the rules would differ between the House and Senate.

The bill would double, to two years, the period in which defeated and retired senators would be barred from lobbying Congress. But in the House, where dozens of former lawmakers have cashed in on lucrative lobbying jobs, the one-year "cooling off" period would remain unchanged.

"The House and Senate are two different bodies, with the House having a higher turnover rate than the Senate," said Brendan Daly, a spokesman for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California. "We made compromises along the way to pass the most critical part of the bill - bundling."

On the other hand, the House took a stricter view of its members flying on corporate-owned jets, banning the practice. Senators, who travel all over their states, and presidential candidates, who crisscross the country, would be permitted to fly on corporate jets but would have to pay charter rates instead of the less costly equivalent of a first-class ticket.

The House in January banned lobbyist-paid gifts, meals and travel. Under the bill, senators and their staffs would now also be barred from accepting gifts and meals from lobbyists. They could take trips paid for by nonprofit groups, but lobbyists could not come along. Government watchdog groups hailed the measure as "landmark reform."

But lobbyists questioned how much it would change the way business is conducted. "It's not going to change how we do our jobs as far as educating members of Congress and staff on the issues," said Paul Miller, a former president of the American League of Lobbyists. "You just can't do it over lunch."

Richard Simon writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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