Ethics Legislation Easily Passes House

By Elizabeth Williamson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 25, 2007

Prodded by Democratic leaders and by freshmen elected partly on promises to clean up Washington, the House approved new ethics legislation yesterday that would penalize lawmakers who receive a wide range of favors from special interests, and would require lobbyists to disclose the campaign contributions they collect and deliver to lawmakers.

Party leaders and new lawmakers worked until the day before the vote to sway some longtime members who had balked at the proposals. It took weeks of persuasion by Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and other key lawmakers to convince recalcitrant Democrats -- among them some members of the speaker's inner circle.

The new proposals, which in the end passed overwhelmingly, would expand the information available about how business is done on Capitol Hill and make it available online. They would provide expanded, more frequent and Internet-accessible reporting of lobbyist-paid contributions and sponsorships, and would for the first time impose prison terms for criminal rule-breakers. They would also require strict new disclosure of "bundled" campaign contributions that lobbyists collect and pass on to lawmakers' campaigns. Yesterday's legislation passed 396 to 22.

"It is absolutely imperative that we break this circle of deceit that exists, that has existed, between lobbyists, their wealthy clients and this legislature," said Rep. Zack Space (D-Ohio), who helped rally support for the rules. In November, Space won the seat vacated by Republican Robert W. Ney, who had pleaded guilty to corruption charges.

The House in January passed rules banning gifts, meals and travel from lobbyists. The rules also require sponsors of pet spending projects, known as earmarks, to identify themselves and certify that they have no financial interest in them.

A bill passed by the Senate in January includes similar bans, as well as reporting requirements for earmarks and bundled campaign contributions from lobbyists. The differences between the House and Senate bills must be resolved before a final measure is sent for the president's signature, probably before the August recess, Democratic leaders said.

Democratic leaders and some watchdog groups hailed yesterday's bill as the most sweeping ethics package since the post-Watergate era. Even so, it lost proposals such as disclosure of "grass-roots" communications campaigns orchestrated by lobbyists and an extension from one year to two of the time lawmakers must wait between leaving their jobs and lobbying former colleagues. Instead, the bill would require that lawmakers interviewing for private-sector jobs publicly recuse themselves from issues involving their prospective new industry.

"The legislative process is the process of the possible, not the perfect, and this is a bill that is going to pass," said House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.).

Republicans were quick to claim credit for helping pass the measures, saying the legislation built on an effort they launched last year. "The American people have every right to expect the highest ethical standards from Congress," said House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio).

The House bundling measure, which passed 382 to 37, was sponsored by Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.); for weeks, he pitched it to reluctant lawmakers who frequently rely on lobbyists to help raise campaign funds. The provision goes beyond Federal Election Commission law, which covers only contributions physically handled by lobbyists or solicited by distributing pre-addressed envelopes. The House bill adds to that contributions credited to registered lobbyists through tracking or code systems.

The bundling reports, filed quarterly and posted online, would mean "much more visibility of conduct that has typically occurred undetected because current law doesn't cover it or the FEC has been spotty in its enforcement," said Kenneth A. Gross, an ethics attorney at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom.

On the floor yesterday, the bundling provision survived a Republican vote to send it back to committee when lawmakers passed an amendment making the bundling rule apply to political action committees.

Under the bill, reports would have to be filed quarterly, rather than semi-annually, and for the first time lobbyists, not just lawmakers, would be liable for infractions. The bill doubles fines for rule-breakers, to $100,000, and includes a criminal penalty of up to five years in prison.

Opposition to the package had come even from Rep. Michael E. Capuano (D-Mass.), whom Pelosi had named to lead a task force charged with improving House ethics enforcement. He said the bundling measure did little to address the main problem in campaign finance, which "is the millions I have to raise to run for office."

"They've started to drain the swamp, and we commend the Democratic leadership and the freshmen members of Congress who pushed hardest for this," said Bob Edgar, president of Common Cause. "But there's still a lot of work to do to prove that this Congress is serious about cleaning up Washington."

Democratic Caucus Chairman Rahm Emanuel (Ill.) and Rep. Martin T. Meehan (D-Mass.) led the effort to sell the bill to lawmakers, engineering changes when the rules hit resistance.

Meehan, a longtime advocate of new ethics and campaign finance rules, was the party's liaison with watchdog groups, which vociferously demanded new rules.

He said the bundling provision was separated from the main bill to keep opponents of the bundling measure from sinking the entire legislative package before it reached the floor.

"Frankly, I think these were reasonable," Meehan said of the leadership's compromises. "In any fight for campaign finance reform, there's a lot of give-and-take."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company