Democratic Leaders Find House Ethics Bill a Tough Sell

By Elizabeth Williamson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 23, 2007

After scrapping most key elements of an ethics package meant to deliver on Democratic promises to bring unprecedented accountability to Congress, party leaders were still working into the night yesterday to sell their stripped-down bill to the rank and file.

With a vote on the bill slated for tomorrow, leading Democrats were fighting yesterday to keep its meatiest remaining piece, a provision unmasking the lobbyists behind bundles of contributions delivered to lawmakers.

But even that faced significant opposition from conservative "Blue Dog" Democrats and members of the Congressional Black Caucus.

"It's not a done deal," Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), the sponsor of the bundling bill, said last night. "We're continuing to work with our members to make it clear that this is an important part of the lobbying reform agenda."

The House committee that sets the rules for tomorrow's vote has been flooded with calls about possible amendments to the ethics bill, most of which would weaken it, insiders said.

Resistance springs from a sea change in the business of politics in recent years. Nearly half of the members of Congress who left office between 1998 and 2004 became lobbyists, according to a study by watchdog group Public Citizen. That lure, combined with spiraling campaign costs and lawmakers' reluctance to reveal any links to K Street, have cooled enthusiasm for the lobbying disclosure bill, even as investigations stemming from lobbyist Jack Abramoff's influence peddling continue.

The Abramoff scandals were "a matter of corruption, not a matter of bundling," said Rep. Sanford D. Bishop Jr. (D-Ga.), a Black Caucus member tasked with rounding up votes for the bill. "I don't think anyone wants to buck the leadership. However, I think members [want] to successfully run reelection campaigns."

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Democratic Caucus Chairman Rahm Emanuel (Ill.) and a raft of ethics-minded freshmen have thrown their weight behind the bill, but other Democrats have spoken out against some rules. Rep. Michael E. Capuano (D-Mass.) said a "revolving door" provision extending the waiting period before former members can lobby Congress placed unfair limits on his future job options. That provision died last week. Rep. John P. Murtha (D-Pa.) has derided the ethics bill as "total crap."

Clearer reporting of the special-interest money driving congressional campaigns is a goal that has been pursued by watchdog groups and some lawmakers for three decades. Measures to achieve that have come close to passage but, in the end, hit the buzz saw of member self-interest.

Yesterday, House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (Md.) called the bundling provision "difficult to get to."

Emanuel said last night that he remained confident that tomorrow's vote would usher in meaningful new ethics laws. The main bill would significantly tighten reporting requirements for lobbyist campaign contributions, event sponsorship and other activities; require searchable, online public access to the reports; and impose harsh penalties on rule-breakers. The proposal, similar to one passed by the Senate in January, would supplement stricter House rules on gifts and travel from lobbyists adopted earlier this year.

Emanuel and Rep. Martin T. Meehan (D-Mass.) have worked to bolster the bill even as members chipped away at it. Last week, when the revolving-door measure fell, the two men substituted a requirement that members interviewing for private-sector jobs publicly recuse themselves from issues involving their prospective new industry.

Meehan failed in a Judiciary Committee meeting last week to gain support for a provision that would ban lobbyist-paid parties honoring members at presidential conventions, but he may resurrect it as a possible amendment.

"There's a lot of member education going on," particularly on the bundling amendment, said an aide close to the talks. "By the time we get there I hope we'll have the votes together."

Staff researcher Madonna Lebling contributed to this report.

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