New Rules Still Allow Congress Many Perks
Saturday, January 20, 2007
On the Monday that was supposed to start the new Congress's first five-day workweek, Minority Leader John A. Boehner helped persuade his Democratic colleagues to give House members the day off.
The Ohio Republican had his reasons. He was going to see Ohio State compete in the national championship football game in Arizona. Boehner had tickets for the stadium's nosebleed section. Then, Boehner's office said, Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. offered him a bird's-eye seat in one of the company's skyboxes.
In the skybox, Boehner mingled with lobbyists for the media giant, whose vast interests in Congress include broadcast-decency legislation and possible restrictions on its hugely popular MySpace Web site.
The perk for Boehner and the lobbying access for News Corp. are entirely permissible under the new ethics rules Congress imposed on itself this month -- provided Boehner personally reimburses the cost of the skybox ticket, which Boehner's office said he plans to do once the company sends him the bill. The lawmaker can use campaign funds, instead of personal money, to pay his airfare.
"He was there to support his home-state school," Boehner spokesman Brian Kennedy explained.
Voters in the last election demanded a change in Washington's ethics climate. The new Democratic congressional leadership responded with sweeping new prohibitions on gifts and travel from lobbyists, tough new limits on once-cheap corporate jet flights for lawmakers, and new requirements that lawmakers disclose the pet projects they earmark.
But the new rules, the toughest changes since Watergate, still leave lots of room for special interests to curry favor and lawmakers to raise big dollars.
The rules, which differ between the Senate and House, are aimed at some of the most attention-grabbing practices involving special interests. Experts such as Kenneth A. Gross, a lawyer who specializes in ethics and campaign issues, said they are designed to "significantly turn the volume down in terms of extravagance and in terms of what can be done." At the same time, they preserve, with some modification, some traditional practices.
For instance, lawmakers can still go to widely attended events or campaign events and accept freebies such as meals. Nonprofit organizations and universities can still provide lawmakers free travel in many cases. And lawmakers can still offer creative opportunities for special interests to meet with them -- for a price.
Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), the new chairman of the tax-writing Senate Finance Committee, is offering special interests a chance next month to go skiing and snowmobiling in Big Sky country. All it takes is a $2,000 donation per person or a $5,000 donation from a political action committee, according to a "Save the Date" solicitation his Glacier PAC sent out to lobbyists.
If lobbyists miss the first outing, they can still catch Baucus this summer for fly-fishing or horseback riding at "Camp Baucus," the invitation promises.
"It makes one pause when members of Congress raise one hand to vote on an ethics proposal to limit special interests and with the other hand outstretched behind their back ask for campaign contributions or perks from special interests," said Kent Cooper, a former federal election regulator who studies ethics and political money.