So much for ethics reform

Ethics reform, seemingly on a fast-track in the wake of the Jack Abramoff scandal, has slowed to a crawl in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Reports Jeffrey Birnbaum in The Washington Post:

The rush to revise ethics laws in the wake of the Jack Abramoff political corruption scandal has turned into more of a saunter.

A month ago, Republican leaders in Congress called legislation on the topic their first priority, and promised quick action on a measure that would alter the rules governing the interaction between lawmakers and lobbyists.

But now they do not anticipate final approval of such a measure until late March at the earliest.

The primary holdup is in the House. Republican lawmakers left Thursday for a week-long recess without agreeing on a proposal that would serve as a starting point for debate. Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) had been working with House Rules Committee Chairman David Dreier (R-Calif.) to devise such a plan and had expected to finish by now.

Their progress was slowed by the election two weeks ago of a new majority leader, Rep. John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), who has a different notion of what "reform" should entail and who challenged parts of Hastert’s plan.

In mid-January, Hastert proposed broad new restrictions on lobbying, including a ban on privately funded travel for lawmakers and tight limits on meals and other gifts.

But Boehner and many rank-and-file Republicans objected to his recommendations and have said they would prefer beefing up disclosure of lobbyists’ activities rather than imposing new restrictions.

As a result, House Republicans are still talking about where to begin. "The speaker wants to gain a consensus on this legislation, introduce it . . . and complete it by the end of March so he can get onto other business," said Ronald D. Bonjean Jr., Hastert’s spokesman.

Previously, Hastert’s office had said it wanted to finish work by mid-March.

Government watchdog groups are disappointed by the pace. "Particularly in the House, the progress is very slow and may end up with very little reform," said Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.

Writes Toby Eckert of Copley News Service:

Ethics reform efforts appear to be stumbling on Capitol Hill, with little consensus emerging about how to break up the cozy relationship between lawmakers and lobbyists.

Resistance to some proposals is growing among lawmakers who are reluctant to give up free meals and all-expenses-paid trips, perks that were liberally dispensed by lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who recently pleaded guilty to fraud and conspiracy.

Efforts to curb special-interest spending known as earmarks, which played a central role in the bribery scandal involving former Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham, have made more headway. But competing proposals abound, and the practice is unlikely to be eliminated.

“There’s a lot of push-back going on right now,” said Joan Claybrook, president of the consumer watchdog group Public Citizen.

“Already we are hearing the sound of furious backpedaling in the corridors of power,” Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., a reform proponent, said at a hearing last week that saw sharp disagreements over the effort.

In the House, Majority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, has been cool to the idea of eliminating gifts and travel by lawmakers that is funded by outside groups. The day before Boehner was elected to the post, Republican leaders decided to delay unveiling a package of reform proposals because of criticism by rank-and-file members who felt they were too severe.