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So What's Congress Doing
to Clean Up the Mess?
House Creates New Ethics Panel
Update, March 13, 2008: In one of its most significant changes in decades, the House created an independent panel empowered to initiate investigations of alleged misconduct by Honorable Members. Republicans heavily opposed this action.
Six members of new Office of Congressional Ethics. The new panel, which will be made up of non-legislators, three chosen by the Republicans, three chosen by the Democrats, will act as a grand jury: it will investigate allegations and forward matters of merit to the standing ethics committee. The new body could only send a matter forward if a Democratic and Republican appointee both agree.
Nevertheless, reform groups see this as a major improvement.
New Congressional Ethics Rules . . .
August 3, 2007: The House and Senate finally passed tough congressional ethics rules:
lawmakers must disclose small campaign contributions that are "bundled" into large packages by lobbyists. (Note: take all the bundled money you want, but you now have to report it).
Lobbyists have to detail their own campaign contributions, as well as payments they make to presidential libraries, inaugural committees and charities controlled by lawmakers. (Note: only make their contributions public, not make them illegal).
Disclosure requirements on "earmarks." Also must certify that there is no personal or family interest in the earmark.
End secret "holds" in the Senate, which allowed a single senator to block action without disclosing that he or she has done so.
Gifts, meals and travel funded by lobbyists are banned, and travel on corporate jets is restricted. Senators (and Senate candidates) have to pay charter rates; Congressmen can't accept private travel.
Lobbyists would have to disclose more information more often (quarterly), and on the Internet.
Lawmakers convicted of bribery, perjury, and other crimes would be denied their congressional pensions.
Harry Reid, Senate majority leader gushed: this is "the most sweeping ethics and lobbying reform in history," and it will give Americans "a government as good and honest as the people it represents." (Now that's a high standard, ain't it!!)
After the Abramoff scandal broke in January 2006, Republican leaders promised a tough bill on lobbyists and lawmakers. Yeah, but no such luck.
April 2006: Why not an independent body to investigate misdoings of the Senate and lobbyists? It would remove Senators from the embarrassing position of judging their peers. But the U.S. Senate by a vote of 67-30 rejected the creation of an independent Office of Public Integrity which would have been empowered to investigate relations between Senators and lobbyists.
May 3, 2006: The House of Representatives voted, by 217-213, to require lobbyists to file quarterly instead of semiannual reports, to include in those reports donations they give to federal candidates, and make public gifts that they give to lawmakers or congressional staff.
Meet your House Ethics Committee
Also, earmarks--or narrow special interest projects--would have to be listed along with the sponsors of the projects. Up until now, earmarks could be filed anonymously, with no justification given. Nearly every Democrat voted against this bill, saying that it was too weak. Joan Claybrook, president of the liberal group Public Citizen said the House measure was a "fraud on the American public."
The Senate and House don't have to agree to have the same Ethics measures. Each body can have its own, but that would make compliance a lot more complicated and would cause confusion. Still, there's no confusion over bribery, graft and corruption--any Member should know what those are.
Sources: Jeffrey H. Birnbaum, "House Lobbying Rules Call for More Disclosure," Washington Post, May 4, 2006, A1. William Branigin, "Congressional Democrats Hail Ethics Bill Approval," Washington Post, August 3, 2007, A1. Jonathan Weisman, "House Creates New Panel on Ethics," Washington Post, March 12, 2008, A1.