Correction to This Article
A March 3 article about congressional ethics legislation quoted Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, as saying, "Lobbying reform is going more the enforcement route." The quote should have read, "Lobbying reform is going more the disclosure route."

Ethics Office For Hill Rejected

By Jeffrey H. Birnbaum
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 3, 2006

A Senate committee yesterday rejected a bipartisan proposal to establish an independent office to oversee the enforcement of congressional ethics and lobbying laws, signaling a reluctance in Congress to beef up the enforcement of its rules on lobbying.

The Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs voted 11 to 5 to defeat a proposal by its chairman, Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), and its ranking Democrat, Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (Conn.), that would have created an office of public integrity to toughen enforcement and combat the loss of reputation Congress has suffered after the guilty plea in January of former lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Democrats joined Republicans in killing the measure.

The vote was described by government watchdog groups and several lawmakers as the latest example of Congress's waning interest in stringent lobbying reform. After starting the year with bold talk about banning privately paid meals and travel, lawmakers are moving toward producing a bill that would ban few of their activities and would rely mostly on stepped-up disclosure and reporting requirements as their lobbying changes.

"Lobbying reform is going more the enforcement route," said Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. "What's that going to do? Nothing much."

Yesterday, the governmental affairs panel spent most of its three-hour drafting session debating the Collins-Lieberman proposal. Collins argued that by hiring professionals to oversee lobbying reports and the investigation of ethics complaints, Congress would improve its credibility by ending the appearance of conflict-of-interest created by the self-policing of its ethics committees.

"The current system of reviewing lobbyists' public reports is a joke," she added.

But Sen. George V. Voinovich (R-Ohio), chairman of the Senate's Select Committee on Ethics and a member of Collins's panel, said the ethics panel does not need any help because it is already doing a thorough job of enforcing the chamber's rules. Speaking of the audits and investigations that the office of public integrity would undertake, Voinovich said: "The ethics committee is already doing those things."

With the backing of current and past ethics panel members in attendance, Voinovich proposed, and the governmental affairs committee adopted, an amendment that would strike the new office from the committee's bill while requiring more openness in the now secretive ethics panel. An annual report would list the number of alleged rule violations that are reported or otherwise dealt with by the House and Senate ethics committees.

Watchdog groups reacted angrily. "The cutting out of the office of public integrity really undermines this whole effort," said Joan Claybrook, president of the liberal group Public Citizen. Lieberman said he will try to get the integrity office approved next week when lobbying legislation is scheduled for action on the Senate floor. He said that he will be joined by other senators in a variety of efforts to get the lobbying bill back in the direction it was headed at the beginning of the year.

In January, House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) was joined by leaders of both parties in calling for bans or severe restrictions on gifts, meals and travel provided by private groups. The proposed stiff limitations were the initial reaction to the political scandals involving Abramoff and members of Congress and their staffs.

But as the legislation has evolved and Abramoff has faded from the headlines, calls for bans have grown scarce, and expanded disclosure has become the centerpiece of the efforts underway. Two Senate committees this week have largely left undiminished lawmakers' ability to accept meals and travel, and the House appears headed in the same direction.

"Disclosure, transparency and oversight systems are the tenets we're interested in implementing," said Kevin Madden, spokesman for House Majority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio). Boehner succeeded Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Tex.), who was forced to step down as leader last year after he was indicted in Texas on campaign-money laundering charges.

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