By Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 1, 2007
The House gave final and overwhelming approval yesterday to a landmark bill that would tighten ethics and lobbying rules for Congress, forcing lawmakers to more fully detail how their campaigns are funded and how they direct government spending.
The new lobbying bill would, for the first time, require lawmakers to disclose small campaign contributions that are "bundled" into large packages by lobbyists. It would require lobbyists to detail their own campaign contributions, as well as payments to presidential libraries, inaugural committees and charities controlled by lawmakers. The proposal would also put new disclosure requirements on special spending measures for pet projects, known as "earmarks."
"What we did today was momentous," declared House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). "It's historic."
The bill is the most far-reaching attempt at ethics reform since Watergate, although it is not as aggressive as some legislators wanted in restricting the use of earmarks and in requiring the disclosure of donation bundling. The legislation, which had been stalled until negotiators worked out a deal in recent days to get it passed before the August recess, is a priority for Democrats, who won control of Congress in part because they had decried what they called "a culture of corruption" under Republicans.
Although it passed the House 411 to 8, the bill could face hurdles in the Senate, which is under a new ethics cloud after the FBI raid Monday on Sen. Ted Stevens's house. Last night, a group of Republican senators prevented Democrats from bringing up the bill, forcing the scheduling of a vote tomorrow to break the filibuster. Still, senators from both parties predicted easy passage by week's end.
Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) all but dared Republicans to try to block the proposal when it comes to a vote as early as tomorrow. "With that resounding vote in the House, 411-8, I think people ought to be concerned about voting against it," he said yesterday.
But in a closed-door lunch with fellow Republican senators yesterday, Stevens (R-Alaska) himself threatened to block the measure, objecting that the legislation's new restrictions on lawmakers' use of corporate jets would unfairly penalize members of Congress who live in distant states, such as himself.
The legislation would end secret "holds" in the Senate, which allow a single senator to block action without disclosing that he or she has done so. Members of Congress would no longer be allowed to attend lavish parties thrown in their honor at political conventions. Gifts, meals and travel funded by lobbyists would be banned, and travel on corporate jets would be restricted. Lobbyists would have to disclose their activities more often and on the Internet. And lawmakers convicted of bribery, perjury and other crimes would be denied their congressional pensions.
"These are big-time fundamental reforms," said Fred Wertheimer, president of the open-government group Democracy 21.
Rep. Michael N. Castle (R-Del.), who failed to get ethics legislation enacted last year, noted that the final bill's disclosure rules are considerably less tough on the "bundling" of small campaign contributions into large donations by lobbyists. The original ethics bill would have required the disclosure of bundled contributions over $5,000 every three months. Under the final bill, lawmakers would have to report every six months any bundled contributions from lobbyists totaling more than $15,000. In one year, a single lobbyist could funnel nearly $30,000 to a candidate or campaign committee without any of those actions having to be disclosed.
House negotiators also refused to lengthen the current one-year "cooling-off" period, during which former House members are prohibited from becoming lobbyists.
Some conservatives latched on to the weakening of earmark disclosure rules that had passed the Senate in January. An explicit prohibition on trading earmarks for votes was dropped by House and Senate Democratic negotiators. A prohibition on any earmark that would financially benefit lawmakers, their immediate families, their staff or their staff's immediate families was altered to say that the ban would apply to any earmark that advances a lawmaker's "pecuniary interest." Critics say that would mean the benefit would have to be direct for the measure to be prohibited, and that the ban would not apply to a project that would benefit a larger community, including the lawmaker.
House members are covered by earmark rules, passed earlier this year, that are tougher than the legislation, which would apply only to senators.
"Earmarks have been the currency of corruption and, unfortunately, this lobbying reform bill does not adequately address that problem," declared Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), a longtime critic of earmarks.
Reform groups and Democrats accused opponents of using the earmark issue as a pretext to block the other rule changes. Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), who has blocked the legislation in the past, confirmed that he remains uncomfortable with the broader bill's mandates on lobbying disclosures and gift bans.
"You could've done nothing, or some staff member could have made an innocent mistake, and now you're defending yourself in a court of law," he said. "It's nuts."
Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), another critic, had single-handedly blocked the calling of a formal House-Senate conference to negotiate the final deal, forcing Democrats to hammer out the compromise on their own. The House passed it under fast-track procedures that prohibit amendments but require a two-thirds majority for approval -- a threshold that was easily met.
Now, Reid must get the bill through the Senate without any amendment, using a parliamentary tactic that has been roundly criticized by Republicans in the past as strong-arming. But in this case, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has given his tacit assent, laying the blame squarely on his own conservative hard-liners.
"In a sense, we made it difficult on ourselves," McConnell said.
It may be even more difficult for Republicans to block the measure while their senior senator, Stevens, is under a cloud of suspicion. FBI agents raided the powerful lawmaker's house Monday, looking for evidence in a long-running investigation of an Alaska energy firm, Veco, and its alleged efforts to bribe Alaska lawmakers.
And yesterday, the House ethics committee indicated that it may consider an inquiry into whether Rep. Heather A. Wilson (R-N.M.) violated rules by calling a federal prosecutor about a pending investigation. The committee's staff interviewed the prosecutor, former U.S. attorney David C. Iglesias, yesterday.
At least eight lawmakers -- six Republicans and two Democrats -- are under federal investigation. Earlier this year, the homes and business interests of Reps. Rick Renzi (R-Ariz.) and John T. Doolittle (R-Calif.) were searched, and Rep. William J. Jefferson (D-La.) was indicted on corruption charges.