By Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 21, 2006
Despite divisions among Democrats over how far to go in revising ethics rules, House leaders plan a major rollout of an ethics reform bill early next year to demonstrate concern about an issue that helped defeat the Republicans in the midterm elections.
But they will do it with a twist: Instead of forwarding one big bill, Democrats will put together an ethics package on the House floor piece by piece, allowing incoming freshmen to take charge of high-profile issues and lengthening the time spent on the debate. The approach will ensure that each proposal -- including banning gifts, meals and travel from lobbyists as well as imposing new controls on the budget deficit -- is debated on its own and receives its own vote. That should garner far more media attention for the bill's components before a final vote on the entire package.
"This will be the most significant ethics and lobbying reform that Congress has ever voted on," promised Rep. Martin T. Meehan (D-Mass.), one of the point men on the effort.
The approach may be the first indication of how the Democrats plan to use their ability to control the House agenda as the majority power, setting the terms of debate while lifting the strict rules that Republicans used to curtail dissent.
And Democrats hope to show that they are attentive to issues of corruption that, according to exit polling, proved to be of major concern to voters on Nov. 7. House and Senate GOP leaders pledged early this year to pass major lobbying reforms in the aftermath of the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal but never delivered on their promise.
Democratic leaders are still putting the finishing touches on the floor schedule and some of the components of the ethics package, said Jennifer Crider, spokeswoman for incoming House speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.). But other Democratic leadership aides said the proposal to break up the package and reassemble it is virtually a done deal.
Under that plan, freshmen would offer, over as many as five days in January, separate amendments to ban gifts, meals and travel financed by lobbyists, said Rep. Rahm Emanuel (Ill.), incoming chairman of the House Democratic Caucus. New rules mandating the disclosure of all contacts with lobbyists would be another vote, as would a rule requiring that the sponsors of funding for home-state pet projects be identified. The House would also vote on whether to reinstate budget rules, known as pay-as-you-go, or "paygo," requiring that any new spending or tax cuts be offset by equal spending cuts or tax increases.
While there is broad support for reform, Democrats face divisions on how far to go on some issues, such as whether to establish an independent board to enforce ethics rules. But leaders are eager to show that they are serious about tackling the corrosive influence of lobbyists and money, so much so that they are willing to spend days working on the issue. They may even let the divisions play out in public, with amendments allowed that may or may not pass, on issues from campaign finance to independent oversight.
"We heard continually out here that people were tired of the way business is conducted in Washington," said Rep.-elect Harry Mitchell (D-Ariz.). "They didn't like the way lobbyists had so much influence. They didn't like the way rules were not enforced. They just didn't think things were being done right."
The idea is to give each provision what Emanuel called its "Warhol time" -- 15 minutes of fame -- while forcing Republicans to take a stand on the components before a final vote on the ethics package. Because House rules changes are, by tradition, party-line votes, breaking the package into its components would also allow Republicans to support individual amendments, even though they probably would vote against the package in the end.
The unorthodox approach, more reminiscent of the drawn-out legislating done in the Senate than the slam-dunks of the House, would also give Democratic leaders a chance to show that they plan to change the way the House does business, Democrats said.
"Why have the gift ban, if that's one of [the components], be buried inside when it can stand on its own and the public wants it and gets it?" Emanuel asked. "Why have paygo have to share space with the meal ban or gift ban?"
The procedure would be as much about solidifying Democratic power as it would be about changing the rules of the House. Freshmen Democrats, many of them representing Republican-leaning districts, would take ownership of components that would resonate most with their voters, Democratic leaders said. For example, a conservative "Blue Dog" would get to present the budget-balancing rule.
Amendments aimed at reducing the influence of lobbyists would go to swing-district Democrats who campaigned on ethics themes. One is Mitchell, who unseated Rep. J.D. Hayworth (R-Ariz.) in large part by stressing Hayworth's links to Abramoff, the disgraced lobbyist. The others are Zack Space (Ohio), who took the Republican-leaning district of convicted former representative Robert W. Ney, and Michael A. Arcuri (N.Y.), who ran on corruption themes to take the district vacated by retiring Rep. Sherwood L. Boehlert (R).
Such a freewheeling approach could expose disagreements within the Democratic Caucus. For example, some members think that an independent board should be created to conduct ethics investigations and mete out punishment to members who violate House rules. Others say the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, informally known as the ethics committee, can handle the assignment as long as leaders allow it to do its job.
Democratic leadership aides say Pelosi is weighing a middle ground -- the establishment of an independent body similar to a grand jury that would weigh the validity of ethics complaints, then pass meritorious allegations to the ethics committee.
The rules change on earmarks, or lawmakers' pet projects, is expected to differ from the proposal Democrats outlined earlier this year, the aides said. That rule would mandate that home-district projects be identified by the names of their congressional sponsors. Pelosi wants to make sure that change applies to projects in spending bills as well as in policy bills, such as the broad highway and transit law that passed in 2005. Tax breaks known as rifle shots, narrowly targeted to benefit only a few companies or individuals, are also expected to face more scrutiny.