Promise to Shore Up Ethics Loses Speed

In the wake of the Abramoff corruption scandal, Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, left, proposed broad new restrictions on lobbying, but Majority Leader John A. Boehner, right, has taken issue with parts of the speaker's plan.
In the wake of the Abramoff corruption scandal, Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, left, proposed broad new restrictions on lobbying, but Majority Leader John A. Boehner, right, has taken issue with parts of the speaker's plan. (By Jonathan Ernst -- Reuters)

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By Jeffrey H. Birnbaum
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 19, 2006

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.

Talks on the issue among House Republicans will go on through the break and continue when lawmakers return at the end of this month, Bonjean said. The measure that emerges would then go through the committee process before reaching the floor, he added, a procedure that commonly takes weeks or months.

"It's important that the leadership listen to all the House Republican members' ideas on the issue before moving forward so we have thought through every possibility," Bonjean said.


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