Ethics measure goes to Bush after Senate OK

The Baltimore Sun

WASHINGTON -- Congress sent President Bush yesterday a bill aimed at reining in the influence of special interests, completing a long-debated overhaul of ethics and lobbying rules spurred by scandals that have rocked Capitol Hill.

The measure grew out of a pledge by Democrats to "drain the swamp" after they won majorities in both congressional chambers in last fall's elections.

It passed the Senate yesterday, 83-14. The House approved it Tuesday, 411-8.

The legislation would ban gifts paid for by lobbyists, limit privately funded travel and double to two years the time senators must wait after leaving Capitol Hill before they can lobby their former colleagues. For former House members, the waiting period remains one year.

The measure would require senators to pay the full charter rate to fly on corporate jets; the House decided to ban such travel for its members. And it would require the disclosure of campaign contributions gathered by lobbyists from clients, friends and others, a practice known as "bundling," which has been used to curry favor with lawmakers.

"Regardless of how reforms might inconvenience us or impact our personal lifestyles, our priority must be to convince our constituents that we are here to advocate their best interests, not those of well-connected lobbyists," said Sen. Russ Feingold, a Wisconsin Democrat who is one of the bill's leading advocates.

The most heated debate over the legislation concerned rules to shine a light on earmarking, the practice popular with lawmakers from both parties through which funding for pet projects has been quietly slipped into bills.

The new ethics package would require public disclosure of such a project and its sponsor. In the past, earmarks often were anonymously added to bills with no public notice.

The practice played a role in scandals involving lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who is now in prison, and former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham, a California Republican.

All of the senators voting against the measure were Republicans, including John McCain of Arizona. Among the six Democratic and Republican senators running for president, McCain was the only one to vote against the bill.

He has long railed against "pork-barrel spending," and he argued that the bill did not go far enough to ensure that earmarks would be carefully scrutinized.

"This bill does far too little to rein in wasteful spending," McCain said.

McCain broke with Feingold, his co-sponsor of the 2002 campaign finance bill that sought to limit the influence of money in politics.

"By any measure," Feingold said during the debate, the bill "must be considered landmark legislation."

Spokeswoman Emily Lawrimore said the White House is also concerned that the earmark provisions are not "as strong as we'd like." Asked whether Bush would sign the bill, she said, "We're continuing to review the legislation."

Critics said the measure would leave it to the Senate majority leader and committee chairmen to certify whether the disclosure rules were being followed. That, said Sen. Jim DeMint, a South Carolina Republican, is akin to allowing "the fox to guard the henhouse."

DeMint opposed the bill, as did Sen. Tom Coburn, an Oklahoma Republican who called it "not a landmark accomplishment but a landmark betrayal."

McCain's opposition put him at odds with past allies including Common Cause, a citizens lobbying group.

"I'm sorry that they are supporting this measure," McCain said. "But I know, even better than them, how this system works."

The bill's supporters countered that earmarks and their congressional sponsors would be online for public perusal 48 hours before a spending bill was considered. Lawmakers would have to attest that neither they nor members of their immediate families would benefit financially from an earmark.

Feingold said the measure would be "an enormous improvement over the way earmarks had been handled by both Democratic and Republican-controlled Congresses in the past."

Sen. Barack Obama, an Illinois Democrat who is a presidential candidate and has worked to present himself as a reformer, said he sees "a lot of good" in the bill.

The debate prompted Sen. Robert C. Byrd, a West Virginia Democrat who is chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee and has a long record of funneling government spending to his home state, to defend earmarking.

"This notion that earmarking spending is inherently wasteful spending is flat-out wrong," he said.

Richard Simon writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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