Lawmakers Agree on New Ethics Rules

By Elizabeth Williamson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 28, 2007

House and Senate negotiators completed days of contentious talks and reached final agreement last night on an ethics bill, despite the objections of members unhappy with tougher rules on lobbyist-delivered campaign contributions.

In a concession to those lawmakers, negotiators weakened a key provision requiring disclosure of contributions "bundled" by lobbyists. Under yesterday's agreement, lawmakers must report every six months any lobbyist-bundled contributions totaling more than $15,000. The original House bill required quarterly reports for bundled contributions above $5,000.

The reconciled bill is slated for a vote Tuesday in the House under fast-track procedures. It will then be sent to the Senate, where procedural roadblocks could delay its passage until the end of next week. Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) has vowed to prevent senators from beginning their month-long recess, scheduled to start next weekend, until the bill passes.

"Republicans will stand in the way of this at their own peril," said Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and sponsor of the stricter bundling rules. "Voters sent a very strong message in November that they want a change in the way that Washington does business, and we're following through."

The bill is a centerpiece of a Democratic-led overhaul of congressional ethics and lobbying rules, and party leaders hailed it as the most significant congressional ethics reform legislation since the post-Watergate era.

"Lobbying laws and rules have been collecting particles and dirt for 30 years, and this is the most comprehensive scrub they've gotten," said Rep. Rahm Emanuel (Ill.), chairman of the Democratic Caucus.

After winning control of Congress in November, Democrats moved quickly to push tougher ethics rules, motivated by voters who expressed disgust with scandals including the ties of former congressman Robert W. Ney (R-Ohio) to jailed lobbyist Jack Abramoff, and bribery allegations against former congressmen Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R-Calif.) and Rep. William J. Jefferson (D-La.).

In their first week in the majority, House Democrats tightened the rules on accepting gifts, travel and meals from lobbyists. The rules also require sponsors of pet spending projects to identify themselves and certify that they have no financial interest in the earmarks.

A bill passed by the Senate in January included similar bans, as well as reporting requirements for earmarks and bundled campaign contributions from lobbyists. But the measure stalled as members wary of greater scrutiny over campaign fundraising haggled for changes, and Senate Republicans repeatedly blocked moves to begin final negotiations.

The House passed its ethics bill in May after intense talks over the bundling language, the provision targeted once more in yesterday's agreement.

The agreed-upon version requires lawmakers to file bundling disclosures to the Federal Election Commission, rather than requiring lobbyists to file to House and Senate record-keepers, as in the earlier bill.

It also retains limits on Washington's "revolving door" by requiring congressional members and top staffers to wait after leaving their jobs before lobbying their former colleagues. The "cooling-off" period is one year for the House, two years for the Senate. In addition, House members must disclose any job negotiations that could conflict with their legislative work, and recuse themselves from that work.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company