By Jeffrey H. Birnbaum
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 30, 2006
The Senate voted yesterday to require lobbyists to provide far more information about their dealings with lawmakers, responding to the Jack Abramoff political corruption scandal with a plan for more disclosure rather than tougher enforcement of ethics laws.
By a vote of 90 to 8, the Senate approved a bill that would also force the disclosure for the first time of indirect lobbying, such as grass-roots activities, and prevent registered lobbyists from paying for lawmakers' meals or giving them gifts such as sports tickets. Congressional leaders had promised far-ranging revisions of lobbying activities after Abramoff pleaded guilty in January to conspiring to bribe public officials. But the legislation that emerged yesterday is less sweeping than GOP leaders envisioned.
"This legislation contains very serious reform," said Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.), one of the architects of the Senate bill. Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), who also wrote large portions of the measure, said the bill goes a long way toward restoring "the bonds of trust with our constituents [that have been] frayed."
However, spokesmen for government watchdog groups and several lawmakers who were active in pushing ethics rule changes expressed disappointment in the Senate's effort. "It's extremely weak," said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), whose lobbying and ethics plan had been hailed by Senate Republican leaders in January as the model for future legislation. He voted against the bill yesterday.
On Tuesday, the Senate rejected a bipartisan plan to create an independent investigative office designed to help the Senate's ethics committee enforce lobbying and ethics laws. Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), one of the authors of the Democrats' lobbying proposals, voted against the Senate bill in part because it did not contain the office of public integrity.
Senate and House leaders will have to reconcile differences before Congress can send a final bill to the president. The House's leading ethics proposal, offered by its Republican leaders, would also broaden disclosure requirements, though not for such grass-roots activities as instigating e-mails, letters and phone calls from voters back home. The House plan would bar neither meals nor gifts.
Abramoff, the former lobbyist who bribed public officials with expensive trips, skybox fundraisers, meals and campaign donations, was sentenced yesterday to nearly six years in prison on separate fraud charges. He is cooperating with federal prosecutors, who are widely expected to pursue indictments against lawmakers, staffers and lobbyists with the help of Abramoff's testimony.
House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) led the charge for ethics law revisions by recommending a ban on privately funded travel and steep limitations on meals and gifts. Other top lawmakers, including Sen. Rick Santorum (Pa.), pressed to curtail lawmakers' use of corporate jets among other lobbyist-provided perks.
But the momentum to pass lobbying legislation slowed as opposition to the most restrictive types of proposals grew among rank-and-file lawmakers. House Majority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) also argued in favor of increased disclosure requirements over adding new restrictions on lobbyists' interaction with lawmakers. Senior Republican aides said the House bill will probably not be ready for consideration by the full body until late April at the earliest.
Asked if the measure meets the sweeping pledges of change voiced by senior members of the House and Senate early in the year, McCain laughed. "The good news is there will be more indictments, and we will be revisiting this issue," he said.
The Senate largely avoided curtailing the behavior of lawmakers. It decided to prohibit lawmakers from accepting meals and gifts from registered lobbyists, but shelved a plan offered by Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.) yesterday that would have applied that ban to companies and organizations that employ those lobbyists. The House measure would not bar meals or gifts from lobbyists or from anyone else.
Extra disclosures of many sorts are at the core of the Senate-passed bill. The measure would require lobbyists to file quarterly reports, rather than the current biannual ones, on their activities, as well as a new, annual disclosure that would detail their donations to federal candidates, officeholders and political parties. In addition, lobbyists would have to disclose all travel they arrange for lawmakers.
Lobbying reports would have to be filed electronically, including those filed by lobbyists for foreign entities, and would need to be accessible via the Internet, something that is not always possible today. In addition, the bill would mandate that senators get approval in advance from the Senate Select Committee on Ethics for any privately financed travel that they accept, but would not limit such travel otherwise. The trips and their major details would have to be disclosed rapidly, including the names of other passengers on private aircraft.
The Senate's bill would slow what has been called the revolving door between government and the K Street lobbying industry. The legislation would double to two years the time during which former lawmakers and former top executive branch officials would be prohibited from lobbying their ex-colleagues. It would also ban -- for a year after leaving their Capitol Hill jobs -- former senior congressional staffers from lobbying anyone in the chamber in which they had worked. Currently, staff members are prohibited from lobbying only their former offices during their one-year "cooling-off period."
The Senate legislation, like its companion in the House, would make it harder for lawmakers to slip into law narrowly targeted appropriations called earmarks.
Besides Obama and McCain, the other six senators voting against the measure were Democrats Russell Feingold (Wis.) and John F. Kerry (Mass.), and Republicans Tom Coburn and James M. Inhofe of Oklahoma, Jim DeMint and Lindsey O. Graham of South Carolina. Not voting were West Virginia Democrats Robert C. Byrd and John D. Rockefeller IV.