Congressional reform strikes out

A free Rolls-Royce, expensive trips to a storied Scottish golf resort, even a freezer stuffed with $90,000 in cash have so far failed to move the U.S. Congress to clean up Capitol Hill.

Efforts to tighten lobbying rules have stalled in the months since a series of corruption scandals, creating potential trouble for Republicans who vowed to institute tough ethics reform.

With the August recess approaching, and then the campaign season when many lawmakers pay scant attention to policy matters, negotiators have little time to resolve differences between bills in the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate and come up with legislation President George W. Bush can sign.

That might not be a bad thing, say some reform advocates who view the proposals as much too weak.

“I’d much rather see Congress fall on its face and not pass anything this year,” said Craig Holman, a campaign-finance lobbyist for the nonpartisan group Public Citizen. “What they’re considering is really nothing but a PR gimmick to placate the American voters.”

Inaction could hurt Republicans if the U.S. Justice Department brings charges in any one of several ongoing corruption probes, others say.

“I don’t think it’s dead, only because I think the public’s attention is going to return to this when members of Congress begin to get indicted,” said Mike Surrusco, director of ethics campaigns for Common Cause, another nonpartisan reform group that has pushed for tighter regulations.

No lawmakers have been charged since former California Republican Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham pleaded guilty to accepting $2.4 million in bribes last year, including a Rolls-Royce.


But the Justice Department is apparently continuing to investigate Cunningham’s former colleagues on the House Appropriations Committee.

A separate influence-peddling scandal centered on disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff — who flew powerful Republicans to Scotland for rounds of golf on the fabled course at St. Andrews — has so far yielded three guilty pleas from former House Republican aides.

Federal prosecutors said they found a $90,000 payoff in the freezer of Rep. William Jefferson, a Louisiana Democrat, in a Justice Department probe of his relationship to telecommunications deals in Africa and elsewhere.

Since Republican leaders said in January that ethics reform would be a top priority this year, the Senate passed a bill that would require lobbyists to disclose more about their activities and ban gifts from them to members of Congress and their staff. It would also extend to two years the “cooling off” period a retired lawmaker must wait before lobbying his former colleagues.

The bill passed by the House also requires greater disclosure by lobbyists, though it does not change the current $50 limit on gifts and “cooling off” period of one year.

House Speaker Dennis Hastert, an Illinois Republican, and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, a Tennessee Republican, had hoped to resolve their differences before July 4.

A spokesman for Hastert said passage of a final bill was still possible.

“This is a complex bill and it takes time to accomplish, but the fact that both the House and the Senate passed their own versions shows the seriousness with which Congress is addressing this issue,” said spokesman Ron Bonjean.

© 2006 Reuters