By Jonathan Weisman and Jeffrey H. Birnbaum
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, January 19, 2007
Senate Democrats and Republicans broke a difficult stalemate last night and approved 96 to 2 expansive legislation to curtail the influence of lobbyists, tighten congressional ethics rules and prevent the spouses of senators from lobbying senators and their staffs.
The Senate legislation, hailed by proponents as the most significant ethics reform since Watergate, would ban gifts, meals and travel funded by lobbyists, and would force lawmakers to attach their names to special-interest provisions and pet projects that they slip into bills. Lawmakers would have to pay charter rates on corporate jets, not the far-cheaper first-class rates they pay now.
The House earlier this month approved similar language as part of an internal rules change. But other portions of the Senate-passed measure would carry the weight of law and would have impacts far beyond the Capitol. The House would have to pass comparable legislation for those provisions to take effect.
One of those legislative provisions would force lobbyists to publicly disclose the small campaign donations they collect from clients and "bundle" into large donations to politicians. Bundling is a way for lobbyists to contribute far more money to candidates and thus wield more influence than they could by making individual contributions, which are currently limited to $2,100 per candidate for each election cycle. Lavish gatherings thrown by lobbyists and corporate interests at party conventions would be banned.
Former lawmakers would no longer be able to engage in any lobbying activity for two years after they leave office. And, in most cases, the lobbyist spouses of senators would no longer be able to take advantage of their family status to influence the colleagues and staffs of their husbands and wives. The only exception is for spouses who had been lobbying for at least one year before their husband or wife was elected.
"This is the toughest reform bill in the history of this body as relates to ethics and lobbying, so everyone here tonight, when they vote on this, should vote proudly," said Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.). "This is historic."
James Thurber, a professor of political science at American University, did not go that far, but he said the impact of the Senate bill would be substantial: "It will change lawmakers' behavior and lobbyists' behavior as well, and it will bring more transparency to lobbying."
The measure appeared dead Wednesday night after Republicans refused to allow passage without a vote on an unrelated amendment that would hand the president virtual line-item veto authority. For nearly two days, Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) -- who jealously guards the Senate's prerogatives on spending matters -- single-handedly blocked efforts to come to an accord on that line-item veto vote.
Democrats and government watchdog groups angrily pointed their fingers at the Republicans, charging that their demand for a vote on such an extraneous provision was simply an indirect way to kill popular legislation they dared not vote against.
But Reid found a path around Byrd, offering Republicans a chance next week to add the spending control measure to a bill to raise the minimum wage if they can find the votes. That broke the logjam, and the Senate then began debating several amendments to the bill, with an eye toward completing work late last night.
The bipartisan vote masked furious backroom lobbying on a measure too popular to kill in public. One provision that was stricken from the bill last night would have forced interest groups to disclose funds spent on grass-roots campaigns that implore the public to contact their representatives about legislation.
That provision -- to force the disclosure of pseudo-grass-roots campaigns -- had raised the ire of an odd coalition that included the American Civil Liberties Union, the Traditional Values Coalition, the American Conservative Union and the National Right to Life Committee, which worked hard to strip it out or even block the whole bill.
The Family Research Council met with lawmakers and their staffs, conducted interviews on radio talk shows, extensively e-mailed its members and notified other organizations, asking them to contact their senators to express opposition, according to Tony Perkins, the group's president. In the end, the Senate struck the measure, 55 to 43.
"This is an issue about free speech, not an issue that is either Republican or Democratic," said Marvin Johnson, legislative counsel of the American Civil Liberties Union, during the coalition's telephone news conference yesterday.
In another defeat for watchdog groups, the Senate overwhelmingly defeated a proposal to create an independent ethics counsel to investigate allegations of wrongdoing in the Senate. The 71 to 27 vote was the second time that Congress has rejected the proposal in recent years.
Opposition from so many conservative activists had raised accusations from Democrats that Republicans were doing their bidding by blocking passage, but other opponents were less partisan. Lobbyists for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC, also talked to lawmakers about excluding from the measure's travel ban trips to Israel sponsored by the group's nonprofit foundation affiliate. The legislation, as written, would allow those trips to continue.
In addition, lobbyists' organizations worked against many parts of the Senate bill, arguing that lobbyists would still be able to spend lavishly on lawmakers under its provisions. They would just have to do so in the context of political fundraisers because fundraising activities are not addressed in the bill.
"The bill has gone from bad to worse," said Paul A. Miller, immediate past president of the American League of Lobbyists. "What's being proposed now puts us in danger of making the system even more corrupt than it is now, largely because the bill would move a lot of lobbying contacts into the realm of campaign finance, and that's more corrupting than under the current system."
But government watchdog groups said they saw much to praise in the bill, and they worked hard for its passage. After Republicans temporarily derailed it late Wednesday, the watchdogs responded furiously. Democracy 21 posted what it called a "Hall of Shame," listing the 45 Republicans that voted to filibuster the bill. The League of Women Voters condemned what it called "late night shenanigans."
"Let there be no mistake here: This was Senate Republicans thumbing their noses at the American people," declared Common Cause President Chellie Pingree.
But, ultimately, it was Byrd that tried to block all of Reid's efforts to accommodate Republican demands on a measure long sought by President Bush that would allow the president to submit to Congress a list of spending items that the White House wants to strike from congressionally passed spending bills. Under the measure, Congress would then vote on whether to sustain or accept those rescissions. Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), its sponsor, called it a modest proposal to help ferret out egregious waste that leaves Congress the final say.
But Byrd decried it as "an assault on the single most important protection the American people have against a president, any president, who wants to run roughshod over [their] liberties." GOP demands for a vote were "little more than political blackmail," he said.
Under the agreement reached last night, Byrd and Gregg will rejoin that battle next week, when the spending-control provision finally comes to a vote.