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Democrats Split on How Far to Go With Ethics Law

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  • Greg Cannon
    http://www.nytimes.com/2006/11/19/washington/19ethics.html?_r=1&th&emc=th&oref=slogin Democrats Split on How Far to Go With Ethics Law By DAVID D. KIRKPATRICK
    Message 1 of 1 , Nov 19, 2006
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      http://www.nytimes.com/2006/11/19/washington/19ethics.html?_r=1&th&emc=th&oref=slogin

      Democrats Split on How Far to Go With Ethics Law
      By DAVID D. KIRKPATRICK
      Published: November 19, 2006

      WASHINGTON, Nov. 18 — After railing for months against
      Congressional corruption under Republican rule,
      Democrats on Capitol Hill are divided on how far their
      proposed ethics overhaul should go.

      Democratic leaders in the House and the Senate,
      mindful that voters in the midterm election cited
      corruption as a major concern, say they are moving
      quickly to finalize a package of changes for
      consideration as soon as the new Congress convenes in
      January.

      Their initial proposals, laid out earlier this year,
      would prohibit members from accepting meals, gifts or
      travel from lobbyists, require lobbyists to disclose
      all contacts with lawmakers and bar former
      lawmakers-turned-lobbyists from entering the floor of
      the chambers or Congressional gymnasiums.

      None of the measures would overhaul campaign financing
      or create an independent ethics watchdog to enforce
      the rules. Nor would they significantly restrict
      earmarks, the pet projects lawmakers can anonymously
      insert into spending bills, which have figured in
      several recent corruption scandals and attracted
      criticism from members in both parties. The proposals
      would require disclosure of the sponsors of some
      earmarks, but not all.

      Some Democrats say their election is a mandate for
      more sweeping changes, and many newly elected
      candidates — citing scandals involving several
      Republican lawmakers last year — made Congressional
      ethics a major issue during the campaign. After
      winning the House on election night, Representative
      Nancy Pelosi, the House Democratic leader, promised
      “the most honest, most open and most ethical Congress
      in history.”

      Senator Barack Obama, an Illinois Democrat tapped by
      party leaders last year to spearhead ethics proposals,
      said he was pushing for changes with more teeth. “The
      dynamic is different now,” Mr. Obama said Friday. “We
      control both chambers now, so it is difficult for us
      to have an excuse for not doing anything.”

      He is pushing to create an independent Congressional
      ethics commission and advocates broader
      campaign-finance changes as well. “We need to make
      sure that those of us who are elected are not
      dependent on a narrow spectrum of individuals to
      finance our campaigns,” he said.

      Sweeping change, however, may be a tough sell within
      the party. Representative John P. Murtha, Democrat of
      Pennsylvania, was embarrassed by disclosures last week
      that he had dismissed the leadership proposals with a
      vulgarity at a private meeting. But Mr. Murtha is
      hardly the only Democrat who objects to broad changes.

      Senator Dianne Feinstein, the California Democrat who
      will oversee any proposal as the incoming chairwoman
      of the Rules Committee, for example, said she was
      opposed to an independent Congressional ethics
      watchdog. “If the law is clear and precise, members
      will follow it,” she said in an interview. “As to
      whether we need to create a new federal bureaucracy to
      enforce the rules, I would hope not.”

      Other Democratic lawmakers argued that the real
      ethical problem was the Republicans, not the current
      ethics rules, and that the election had alleviated the
      need for additional regulations. “There is an
      understanding on our side that the Republicans paid a
      price for a lot of the abuses that evolved,” said
      Representative Barney Frank, Democrat of
      Massachusetts, alluding to earmarks. Senator Tom
      Harkin, an Iowa Democrat and a senior member of the
      Appropriations Committee, said the scandals of the
      current Congress were “about the K Street Project for
      the Republicans,” referring to the party’s initiative
      to put more Republicans in influential lobbying posts
      and build closer ties to them.

      “That was incestuous from the beginning. We never had
      anything like that,” Mr. Harkin said of Democrats.
      “That is what soured the whole thing.”

      Democrats, of course, have also cultivated close ties
      to lobbyists, who play a major role in campaign
      fund-raising for members of both parties. Indeed,
      ethical violations and house-cleaning efforts have
      both been bipartisan activities over the years.
      Congress has seesawed between public calls for changes
      and a reluctance to cramp incumbents’ campaign
      fund-raising and political power.

      The Republicans who took over the House in 1994
      adopted some of the same policies the Democrats now
      propose, including a ban on gifts and travel, only to
      relax the rules later. In 2002, Senators John McCain,
      Republican of Arizona, and Russell D. Feingold,
      Democrat of Wisconsin, pushed through a bipartisan law
      to restrict campaign donations and spending. The
      advocates of that bill are now pushing to close
      loopholes around so-called 527 groups.

      And Republican leaders in the House and the Senate
      also vowed to pass what they called comprehensive
      ethics and earmark reform bills earlier this year.
      Critics complained that lawmakers had watered them
      down, and the two bills were never reconciled. (The
      Democratic proposals would also require a combination
      of internal House and Senate rules changes and
      legislation in both chambers.)

      The current Congress, however, has set a high
      watermark for corruption scandals. One Republican,
      Representative Randy Cunningham of California, is in
      jail and another, Representative Bob Ney of Ohio, is
      on the way. The former House majority leader, Tom
      DeLay, resigned under indictment, and the payoff
      scandal surrounding the lobbyist Jack Abramoff may
      ensnare others as well. On the Democratic side,
      Representative William J. Jefferson of Louisiana faces
      bribery charges.

      Advocates of an overhaul believe the reaction to the
      Congressional embarrassments make the Democratic
      takeover of Capitol Hill their best chance for
      significant change since the aftermath of Watergate,
      when Congress created the presidential campaign
      finance system. But they consider the Democratic
      proposals just the beginning of a cleanup.

      “A ban on gifts, meals, corporate jet flights — a lot
      of that resonates with the public because people think
      there is just a lot of free giveaways in Congress,”
      said Chellie Pingree, president of the ethics advocacy
      group Common Cause. “A lot of this is sort of skirting
      the issue of how campaign funds are shaping the
      legislative process.”

      Ms. Pingree noted that the scandals of the last
      Congress arose from actions that were illegal but went
      undetected for years because of lack of oversight.
      “Are they going to enforce the rules?” she asked.

      Spurred by the election results, several Democrats in
      addition to Mr. Obama are pushing bigger changes.
      Senator Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, the No. 2
      Democrat in the Senate, is preparing a proposal for
      some form of public financing or free broadcast time
      for Congressional candidates to reduce their
      dependence on campaign donors. Common Cause says that
      21 newly elected Democrats, more than half the class,
      and 69 incumbents have signed a pledge endorsing the
      idea.

      That idea, however, has never gained much traction in
      Congress, in part because lawmakers balk at the notion
      of helping challengers who want their jobs. “You use
      taxpayer dollars to finance people who may not only be
      fringe candidates but — I was going to use the term
      ‘nut’— may be mentally incompetent,” Ms. Feinstein
      said.

      Senator Harry Reid, the Democratic leader, said last
      week that he hoped to add new restrictions on 527
      groups, which operate largely outside the fund-raising
      and spending rules governing candidates or party
      committees. Many Democrats oppose that idea because
      many of the groups have supported Democrats.

      Mr. McCain, who is exploring a presidential bid, is
      also pushing to extend the campaign finance rules to
      527 groups. And he and some conservative Republicans
      are stepping up calls to restrict earmarks. But both
      Republican and Democratic members of the
      appropriations committees, which dole out earmarks,
      oppose any intrusions on their power.

      The Democratic proposals seek more “transparency” in
      earmarks. But the House proposal would apply only to
      “district-oriented earmarks,” that is, projects
      obtained for constituents. Lawmakers already boast of
      sponsoring such items. The earmarks involved in
      corruption cases are often directed to contractors or
      campaign contributors elsewhere.

      The Senate proposal would require the disclosure of
      the lawmaker who requested any earmark for funds paid
      directly to people outside the federal government,
      like a grant for a health clinic in a lawmaker’s
      hometown. But that would not address most earmarks
      because they are funneled through the defense
      department or other government agencies to
      contractors.

      Two House Democrats, Representatives Chris Van Hollen
      of Maryland and Rahm Emanuel of Illinois, have
      proposed a measure they say would block a lawmaker
      from requesting an earmark that would benefit a
      company, group or lobbying firm that employed a member
      of the lawmaker’s family or a former member of the
      lawmaker’s staff.

      “The rules would prohibit any kind of self-dealing,”
      Mr. Van Hollen said in an interview, acknowledging
      that his party’s support for the idea remains to be
      seen. “It will be something of an indication of how
      serious we are about reform.”

      Mr. Obama called the idea “sensible” and said he
      supported it. But almost no one expects the Democrats
      to enact such a change, in part because many have
      close ties to former staff members or family members
      in the lobbying business.

      Ms. Feinstein, for example, said she hoped to extend
      the Senate bill to require disclosure of all earmarks,
      including defense projects. But she said she would
      oppose a measure like Mr. Van Hollen’s because it
      would prevent her from directing funds to California
      cities because their lobbyists include former staff
      members.
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