By Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 19, 2006
Congressional Democrats yesterday laid out a plan to change what they called a GOP "culture of corruption" in Washington, even as Republicans pointed to ethics lapses on their antagonists' side of the aisle.
Democratic leaders from the House and Senate endorsed proposals that closely mirror Republican plans unveiled this week to tighten regulations on lobbyists since the Jack Abramoff political corruption scandal broke. But in a sign that an ethical "arms race" may be developing, the Democratic plans go further than the Republicans' proposals.
Rather than limiting the value of a gift to $20, as House Republicans are considering, Democrats would prohibit all gifts from lobbyists. Democrats also take direct aim at some of the legislative practices that have become established in the past 10 years of Republican rule in Congress. They vowed to end the K Street Project, under which Republicans in Congress pressure lobbying organizations to hire only Republican staff members and contribute only to Republican candidates.
Lawmakers would have to publicly disclose negotiations over private-sector jobs, a proposal inspired by then-House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman W.J. "Billy" Tauzin's job talks in 2003 that led to his hiring as president of the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America in January 2005. Executive branch officials who are negotiating private-sector jobs would need approval from the independent Office of Governmental Ethics.
Under the Democrats' plan, House and Senate negotiators working out final versions of legislation would have to meet in open session, with all members of the conference committee -- not just Republicans -- having the opportunity to vote on amendments. Legislation would have to be posted publicly 24 hours before congressional consideration. Democrats also proposed to crack down on no-bid contracting and to require that any person appointed to a position involving public safety "possess proven credentials."
"Mr. Abramoff and his associates will be held up as the beginning and end of our congressional crisis, but they are just the symptom of a larger problem," said Rep. Louise M. Slaughter (D-N.Y.). "Now is the time to realize that the Republican members of Congress who put America up for sale have neither the ability nor the credibility to lead us in a new direction."
Abramoff, a once-powerful lobbyist, is at the center of a far-ranging corruption investigation. He pleaded guilty this month to fraud, tax evasion and conspiracy to bribe public officials in a deal that requires him to provide evidence about members of Congress.
So far, the scandal has had a distinctly Republican focus. The GOP has received nearly two-thirds of the campaign donations from Abramoff's lobbying team and Indian tribal clients, and 100 percent of his personal donations. Federal prosecutors looking into the Abramoff case have so far implicated only a Republican lawmaker, a Bush administration procurement official and GOP aides in charging documents.
Still, Republicans have worked hard to convince voters that any corruption in the capital is bipartisan, alleging Democratic abuses to match the charges against Republicans. Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.), like House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), signed a letter in 2002 to Interior Secretary Gail A. Norton on behalf of an Abramoff client around the time he received a large campaign contribution from Abramoff's tribal clients. Edward P. Ayoob, a former Reid aide, was a member of Abramoff's lobbying team.
Sen. Byron L. Dorgan (D-N.D.), one of Abramoff's toughest critics, has acknowledged that in the fall of 2003 he pushed Congress to approve legislative language urging government regulators to decide whether the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe of Massachusetts deserved federal recognition. About the same time, Dorgan met with the tribe's representatives and Michael D. Smith, an Abramoff associate.
Abramoff picked up part of the tab for two Democrats, Reps. James E. Clyburn (S.C.) and Bennie Thompson (Miss.), on a trip to the Northern Mariana Islands in the mid-1990s, officially sponsored by the nonprofit American Security Council. Clyburn, now chairman of the Democratic Caucus, was recently named to the House Democrats' "clean team," tasked with leading the ethics-reform push.
And as Democrats try to widen the focus of the corruption scandal, they risk bringing more scrutiny to party lawmakers. Yesterday, Democrats repeatedly mentioned the guilty plea of Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R-Calif.) in a bribery scheme not connected to Abramoff.
But a Democrat, Rep. William J. Jefferson (La.), is under a similar cloud. Last week, Brett M. Pfeffer, a former Jefferson aide, pleaded guilty to conspiring to bribe Jefferson, who, in exchange for his support, allegedly demanded a 5 to 7 percent stake in one of two West African Internet and cable television companies that Pfeffer's firm was investing in.
"When I hear Democratic Party leaders throwing around terms like 'culture of corruption,' I have to think, 'You oughta know,' " said Rep. John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), a candidate for the post of House majority leader.
Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) conceded yesterday that "Democrats are certainly not without sin." But, he added, the efforts of Abramoff; his business partner, Michael Scanlon; and the K Street Project to integrate Congress's legislative efforts with the Republican lobbying world "are Republican sins and Republican sins alone."
Frank Clemente, director of the watchdog group Public Citizen's Congress Watch, drew a distinction between the corrupt actions of individuals for their own benefit and the "systemic" corruption that Abramoff's actions have uncovered: the routine, glitzy fundraisers and entertainment junkets that seemingly lead to official action; the revolving door that allows congressional aides to become high-priced lobbyists; and the fleecing of clients with the promise of access to power brokers in Washington.