House Democrats Prepare To Tighten Lobbyist Rules

By Jonathan Weisman and Jeffrey H. Birnbaum
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, January 4, 2007

In their first act as the House majority, Democrats today will introduce a package of rule changes to ban gifts and trips from lobbyists, restrict privately funded junkets and begin to sever the cozy relations between lobbyists and lawmakers that scandalized the last Congress.

But a number of loopholes in the proposal have led ethics watchdogs to warn Democrats that their work will be far from done, even if the new rules are secured today. Under the changes, lobbying groups would be able to finance lawmakers' travel as long as those funds were channeled through a nonprofit foundation. And almost all banned perks would still be permitted if given in the context of a campaign fundraiser.

As if to underscore the need for rule changes, the House ethics committee found yesterday that Rep. Tom Feeney (R-Fla.) took part in a 2003 junket to Scotland financed by lobbyist Jack Abramoff that violated House rules. The panel decided against censuring Feeney after he agreed to reimburse the government the trip's $5,643 cost.

The details of the ethics package were greeted warmly by watchdog groups, which have been pushing for a strong response to the influence-peddling scandals that erupted last year. Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, called it a "strong package." Joan Claybrook, president of Public Citizen, hailed it as "a meaningful step forward."

But the same groups said Congress must establish an independent ethics watchdog to enforce the new rules, especially in light of actions such as yesterday's ruling on Feeney's trip. The ethics committee also decided yesterday not to punish anyone for not deterring the behavior of former congressman Mark Foley (R-Fla.).

Under the rule changes, "the importance of creating a new, stronger enforcement entity such as an Office of Public Integrity becomes even greater. Effective enforcement is the linchpin to this entire process," said Meredith McGehee, policy director of the Campaign Legal Center.

The changes would prohibit House members or employees from knowingly accepting gifts or travel from a registered lobbyist, foreign agent or lobbyist's client. Lawmakers could no longer fly on corporate jets. In addition, congressional travel financed by outside groups would have to be preapproved by the ethics committee and immediately disclosed to the public.

The rule changes would also combat many of the strong-arm tactics that Republicans used to leave House Democrats virtually irrelevant when the GOP was in control. Votes could no longer be held open indefinitely while leaders twist arms to win the outcome they want. Lawmakers in both parties would have to be notified before final legislative negotiations begin between the House and Senate. Those negotiations would largely have to be held in public, and once they were complete, changes could not be slipped into legislative agreements in the dead of night.

Another slate of changes is to be voted on tomorrow to rein in swollen budget deficits. Parliamentary rules approved in 1974 to block Senate filibusters on bills that raise taxes or cut entitlement spending could no longer be used to cut taxes and increase the deficit, as Republicans did several times. Under the new rules, any law that cuts taxes or increases spending would have to be offset by tax increases or spending cuts.

Special-interest or home-district pet projects -- known as earmarks -- would have to be claimed by their sponsors, who would have to spell out who benefits. That measure would apply not only to spending bills but also to tax measures and policy legislation, which in recent years have been larded with narrowly targeted provisions.

"My one-word reaction to these earmark transparency [changes] compared to previous efforts: better," said Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense.

The changes, especially the ban on lobbyist-funded meals and gifts, left some Washington businesses grumbling.

"If members of Congress are changing their votes because they are influenced by our [food], then this country is in a lot of trouble," said Patricia Beggiato, special events coordinator at Sesto Senso restaurant. "I guess lobbyists will just have to take each other out for lunch and dinner."

Matt Williams, spokesman for Washington Sports and Entertainment, which owns the Wizards basketball team, said: "This ban will certainly negatively affect the business we do with one of the major industries in our region -- the federal government."

Others said they are not concerned. "We don't believe it will have any effect," a Washington Redskins spokesman said.

Many lobbying groups would still be able to take lawmakers on junkets through their nonprofit foundation affiliates, despite the travel ban.

Lobbyists and their clients would continue to fete lawmakers at restaurants, sporting events and faraway resorts as long as those events are part of campaign fundraisers. Campaign finance laws, which are distinct from House rules, permit outsiders to provide all manner of benefits to lawmakers as long as those benefits are accompanied by checks written to the lawmakers' reelection coffers.

"We would be able to take people out to lunch, but only if we give them a check while we do it," said Paul A. Miller, immediate past president of the American League of Lobbyists. "That looks more corrupting than what we have under the current system."

In another exception, lawmakers would be allowed to attend receptions and other "widely attended events" paid for by interest groups and lobbyists, according to Kenneth Gross, an ethics expert at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company