Senate Votes Down Outside Ethics Office

By Jeffrey H. Birnbaum
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 29, 2006

The Senate rejected a proposal to establish an independent office to investigate ethics complaints against its members, and then cleared the way to pass a broad-based ethics and lobbying bill this week.

On a 67 to 30 vote, the Senate defeated a bipartisan proposal to create an office of public integrity, which its backers said was designed to strengthen enforcement of Senate rules and bolster voters' trust in Congress in the aftermath of the guilty plea in January of disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

The Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee had killed a similar proposal March 2 after current and former members of the Senate's ethics committee called the office superfluous. The top Republican and the senior Democrat on the ethics panel led the successful effort to bury the proposal yesterday for a second time.

The rejected measure was devised by Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine), Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.). They asserted that lobbying and ethics rules need to be better enforced for the public to regain trust in congressional officials.

"The fact remains that public confidence in Congress is near an all-time low," Collins said. "Strengthening the enforcement mechanism is critical" to improving lawmakers' reputations, she added.

Government watchdog groups reacted quickly and angrily to the vote. "The Senate today is refusing to acknowledge that Congress -- in the eyes of the public -- has failed to police itself," said Common Cause President Chellie Pingree.

Joan Claybrook, president of Public Citizen, said the vote against the office shows that the "Senate is out of touch."

Opponents of the integrity office argued that the Senate's Select Committee on Ethics is already policing complaints thoroughly and without bias, and does not need an independent office to assist its investigations. "The laws and rules are enforced," said Sen. George V. Voinovich (R-Ohio), chairman of the ethics committee. An office to conduct investigations before the ethics panel's consideration "would hurt the situation" rather than help it, Voinovich said.

Sen. Tim Johnson (S.D.), the senior Democrat on the ethics committee, agreed that a new office would "duplicate the ethics committee" and would "waste resources."

Lieberman said the proposal had been altered since committee deliberations to attract more support. The scope of the office's duties was narrowed to the Senate only, leaving the House out of the measure, and he reiterated that the office would be subordinate to the ethics committee. But Collins acknowledged that the measure from the start had faced an "uphill" climb.

The Senate also approved a proposal by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) to end the practice that allows a senator to block anonymously consideration of legislation. By an 84 to 13 vote, the Senate agreed to put a stop to what are known as secret holds.

The measure would require senators to disclose publicly within three days that they are objecting to the consideration of a bill. Currently, senators can place a hold on legislation without acknowledging their action to the public or to other senators.

The Senate agreed to work on the lobbying bill after voting 81 to 16 to limit the number of amendments it will consider. The procedural vote could allow the chamber to finish the legislation as early as today, lawmakers and staffers said.

McCain complained that some key amendments are being laid aside as a result of the vote. In particular, he said he regretted that amendments that would limit earmarks -- narrowly focused appropriations -- and that would, in effect, restrict lawmakers' use of chartered jets would not be voted on as part of the bill.

The legislation as it stands would bar lawmakers from accepting meals and gifts, including sports tickets, from registered lobbyists, and would increase the disclosure that lobbyists must make to the public.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company