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In January, within days of the breaking of the worst lobbying scandal in decades, congressional leaders pledged swift and bold reform. That hasn’t happened, and Congress may be months away from coming together on the issue.
The Senate, within sight last week of passing a tough lobbying and ethics bill, got sidetracked by the Dubai port-management controversy and has moved on to other topics. House Republicans, at odds over such issues as whether to ban privately funded travel, have yet to introduce a bill.
"It is disappointing that the Senate is not completing action this week," Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said Friday after a Democratic attempt to attach an amendment killing the port deal brought floor action to a discordant halt.
"I fear this delay could jeopardize this important bill and that it could become a casualty of a crowded calendar," she said.
The Senate bill, which has bipartisan support, would require greater disclosure of lobbyists’ activities, prohibit senators from accepting meals from lobbyists, introduce greater scrutiny of trips paid for by provide sponsors and slow the movement of lawmakers to lobbying jobs.
It also provides a way to kill pet projects, known as earmarks, that lawmakers sneak into larger bills.
It’s unclear when the Senate will return to the ethics measure. This week it will turn to the 2007 budget bill. The following week, Congress is in spring recess. When it returns, leaders say they want to start debate on the highly contentious issue of immigration reform.
"I’m not going to let it slide off the table," Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., who has championed ethics reform, said Sunday on CBS’ "Face the Nation." "We’re going to try and see if we can ban some of the corporate jets and perks."
But Obama added: "I’m a little bit concerned on the House side. There seems to be a lot of backpedaling."
House leaders were quick off the mark after lobbyist Jack Abramoff pleaded guilty in early January as part of as federal influence-peddling investigation. In one of its first acts of the new year, the House banned former members-turned-lobbyists from access to the House floor and gym.
House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., saying that Congress must act to restore its tainted reputation, proposed a total ban on privately funded travel and asked Rules Committee Chairman David Dreier, R-Calif., to lead the reform effort with a goal of passing legislation by the end of February.
The goal now is to move a bill before the Easter recess in April. It likely will contain a temporary ban on privately funded travel, until the end of the year, to give lawmakers more time to figure out how to separate legitimate fact-finding tours from the tropical island-and-golfing outings made infamous by the Abramoff scandal.
Hastert and other Republicans have also indicated the bill could include new campaign spending controls on tax-exempt partisan groups, nicknamed for a section of the tax code. In the 2004 elections, such groups spent $544 million, by one estimate, and tended to favor Democrats.
But Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., a main sponsor of the Senate bill, and other Democrats stress that while campaign finance reform is more important than cleaning up lobbying rules, it should be dealt with separately and that inclusion in the lobbying bill could be fatal.
"We must not slow lobbying reform by tacking on unrelated campaign finance measures, which many on both sides would see as a poison pill," Dodd said in a floor speech.
Government reform groups say they are still confident that members of Congress, frightened by voter disgust at the lobbying scandal, will come though with a bill. Whether it contains some of the more substantive changes they want, such as a new independent office of integrity to oversee congressional ethics and lobbying matters, is another question.
"I don’t think this one is going to go away," said Joan Claybrook, president of Public Citizen. "Members of Congress know they are going to face this issue in November."
Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, said clean-government groups knew this was going to be a stiff battle because the issues directly affect lawmakers’ perquisites. But, he said, "the public has made it absolutely clear that it is deeply concerned about lobbying and corruption scandals." Members of Congress "ignore this concern at their own peril."
On the Net:
Democracy 21: http://www.democracy21.org/
Public Citizen: http://www.citizen.org/