A tougher code of ethics that strengthens financial disclosure requirements and limits outside earned income moved toward passage in the House yesterday.
A key vote came on a procedural motion that prevented all but a few amendments to the proposal. That vote was 267 to 153 with the breakdown largely along partly lines, Democrats voting for it and Republicans, who felt it unfairly prevented them from offering charges, voting against it.
The new ethics code was drafted by a commission consisting of House members and prominent citizens headed by Rep. David R. Obey (D-Wis).
The package was pushed through partly in response to sex and payroll scandals that hit the House last year, and partly in response to a federal commission's strong recommendation that members of Congress be granted a 29 per cent pay rate only if they adopted a new and stronger code of ethics, which limited the outside income a member could earn.
The pay rise, from $44,600 to $57,500, automatically went into effect Feb. 20.
The Senate, which has a similar ethics measure pending, is expected to act on it next week.
Obey, who had the strong backing of House Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill, described the package yesterday as a "tough and realistic approach."
"The ethics of the marketplace are not sufficient for public life," he said.
In addition to requiring full disclosure of income, gifts, holdings, debts, security transactions and real estate, and limiting outside earned income, including honoraria from speeches, to 15 per cent of a member's income or $8,625, the new code would:
Prohibit the acceptance of gifts aggregating over $100 a year from persons or organizations with a direcct interest in legislation before Congress.
Prohibit lame-duck travel by a member retiring or defeated in the general election, and prohibit "double dipping," or reimbursement for travel from more than one source.
End unofficial office accounts, funds set up from private contributions or campaign funds that are supposedly used to defray allowances, such as extra travel or newsletters. These are often called "slush funds." Neither the contributions to them nor the use is required to be disclosed, often leading to abuses. In return for the abolishment of the fund, official office expense accounts would be increased by $5,000 per member.
Restrict the use of the frank, or free mailing previlege.
Financial disclosure would begin in 1978, and the office funds would be abolished by Jan. 3, 1978, but the limit on outside earned income would not begin until Jan. 3, 1979, to give members a chance to divest themselves of holdings if they want to. Other major provisions would become effective immediately.
By far the most controversial item in the package was the limit on outside earned income. Members complained that it was inequitable since there was no limit on unearned income such as that from stocks, and that it was unconstitutional since it imposed a qualification for membership in Congress the founding fathers did not intend.
Debate on the issue was emotional and marked with cheers and catcalls.
Rep. Otis G. Pike (D-N.Y.), a lawyer and an officer in a corporation for 29 years, got a standing ovation for a speech in which he said he had promised himself "never to get in a position in which I needed a political job to feed my family. I knew unethical people would come to me with financial propositions and I wanted to be able to say stop. They did and I did."
Pike said the temptation of a member without an adequate income is "the largest single source of political corruption I know of."
majority Leader Jim Wright (D-Tex.) said public perception "gives high evaluation to individual members but looks upon our collective institution as inept, incompetent or even downright corrupt."
"And if our opportunities for substantial outside earnings are to some degree inhibited, let us reflect that serving in the Congress is not a part-time job but an all-consuming task worthy of our full time, our total talents and our undivided efforts," Wright said.