Draining the 'Swamp' Is Not So Easy

Rep. Chris Van Hollen pushed for "bundling" rules in the ethics bill, which tightens disclosure of multiple contributions "bundled" by lobbyists. ("Fox News Sunday" Via Getty Images)
By Elizabeth Williamson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 7, 2007

After eight months of behind-the-scenes kicking and screaming, the House and Senate passed ethics rules that promise to change how lawmakers raise money, travel and party. That is, if Congress devises a way to enforce them.

"We indicated that because of the culture of corruption that had infested Washington, that we were going to do something to change that. And change it we did," said Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.). "The bill that is now on its way to the president is the most sweeping lobbying and ethics reform in the history of our country."

The bill tightens disclosure requirements on multiple campaign contributions "bundled" by lobbyists and bans meals, travel and gifts from special interests. It requires sponsors of earmarks to make known their sponsorship of those pet spending projects tucked into legislation. And it bans lawmakers from requesting earmarks in which they hold a principal financial interest. The law provides for most of that information to be posted online.

After winning control of Congress in November, Democrats moved quickly to push tougher ethics rules, motivated by the lobbying-related scandals. The web woven by jailed lobbyist Jack Abramoff that ensnared lawmakers including former congressman Robert W. Ney (R-Ohio) inspired freshmen such as Rep. Zack Space, the Democrat who won Ney's seat, to push hard for new rules.

Portions of the legislation would take effect shortly after the law's signing, and others, including new disclosure requirements for contributions bundled by lobbyists, would take effect on Jan. 1.

Government watchdogs and ethics lawyers generally agree that the bill would shed new light on the Washington influence game but wonder how those who don't play ball would be found and punished. Without an effective bureaucracy for managing the flow of new disclosures provided by the law, they say, the legislation won't mean much.

"This law will put a significant new burden on the ethics committees and the public disclosure offices in the House and Senate. They have to do more than sticking the reports in a filing cabinet," said Kenneth Gross, an ethics lawyer at the law firm Skadden, Arps.

Violations of the law would be prosecuted by the Justice Department, but "they rely on referrals," Gross said. The new legislation expands the jurisdiction of federal prosecutors beyond violations of lobbying laws to breaches of the gift ban and other provisions, imposing civil and, for the first time, criminal penalties.

Without a way to manage disclosure information, "the enforcement process will be weakened at its base," Gross said.

The bill's requirement that all congressional trips -- hundreds each year -- must be preapproved by congressional ethics committees "is just one brand-new rule that would overwhelm the existing ethics committees," said Craig Holman, legislative representative for governmental watchdog Public Citizen.

The bill requires new lobbying reports to be posted and maintained online, but Holman asked: "Who's supposed to be in charge of this centralized database?"

Melanie Sloan, who heads Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, said the bill "puts more onerous reporting on lobbyists, but the House and Senate don't have new responsibilities -- except to keep hold of all of this."

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