Congress backs away from ethics reform

Minneapolis-St. Paul Star Tribune

A new set of ethics rules headed for a Senate vote this week is missing two big changes that many lawmakers pushed hard to get passed: a ban on privately financed travel and the creation of an independent watchdog office to oversee the conduct of lobbyists and members of Congress.

After putting ethics atop its agenda amid an unfolding influence-peddling scandal two months ago, Congress has shown signs of retreat.

Sen. Mark Dayton, D-Minn., is ready with an amendment to do away with privately paid travel as a way to curb abuses by lobbyists, but it’s unlikely to pass. In the House, there’s increased talk of imposing a one-year moratorium on private travel, a far cry from House Speaker Dennis Hastert’s original proposal to ban all free private trips in response to the Jack Abramoff scandal.

The Office of Public Integrity, proposed as a way to stop lawmakers from being forced to police themselves, appears dead. It didn’t survive a committee vote last week, as a majority of the Senate’s Governmental Affairs Committee said the current ethics process is working just fine.

"If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it," said Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn., a member of the committee. "I don’t know if it’s broke."

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, the committee’s chairwoman and a proponent of the new office, said Congress has created an "inherently conflicted" process in which members judge their own behavior.

"We are our own advisers, we are our own investigators, we are our own prosecutors, we are our own judges, we are our own jurors," she said. And she said the process for reviewing lobbyist disclosure reports "is a joke."

Critics say it’s clear that Congress is out to preserve the status quo and appears content with cosmetic changes.

Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., told his colleagues that the public is already hearing "the sound of furious backpedaling in the corridors of power."

The new proposals would not be toothless.

They would force lobbyists to file quarterly, instead of semi-annual, disclosures. They would tighten restrictions on permissible gifts from lobbyists. And they would increase penalties for violations. Grass-roots lobbying firms would be required to report how much they spend to influence decisions. Lobbyists would have to annually report their contributions to candidates and political parties. And lobbyists would have to report the travel they arrange for members of Congress and all gifts worth $20 or more. The legislation would also result in more lobbying reports getting posted on the Internet, as well.

Many members of Congress say the focus should be on those stiffer disclosure requirements. But critics say that would be meaningless without stiffer enforcement.

"That’s like tallying the number of people killed in highway crashes instead of making safer vehicles," said Joan Claybrook, president of Public Citizen.

After much debate, the full Senate is expected to take its first votes this week.

In a unanimous committee vote, Coleman won support for his plan to create a special 9/11-style commission to study ethics laws and recommend changes, saying such a body could "take the long view." His proposal appears to have a good chance of approval.

Attempts to rein in private travel are having a more difficult time.

In the House, the proposed permanent travel ban suggested by Hastert, R-Ill., encountered immediate resistance from Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, the newly elected majority leader. Boehner told a television reporter that it would be a mistake to "lock members up in a cubbyhole in Washington."

Traveling at private expense has been popular among both Democrats and Republicans. Many say it’s a good way for members of Congress to stay current on the issues.

In January, for example, Rep. Martin Sabo, D-Minn., and his wife, Sylvia, accepted a $9,000 trip to spend five nights in Hawaii as Sabo attended a conference on aviation issues, sponsored by the American Association of Airport Executives. Sabo has attended the annual conference in Hawaii for four of the past five years.

Coleman, who has accepted 44 privately financed trips in the last three years, told his colleagues that private travel is a good way for lawmakers to work with the private sector.

Dayton said if trips are important enough to take, they should be financed by taxpayers. He acknowledged that there’s "substantial disagreement" but said he’s still optimistic about his amendment to ban private travel. "I haven’t lost my enthusiasm for it," he said.