Jul 31 2007
House and Senate Democrats on Monday unveiled an ethics package they touted as the strongest reform in decades, attracting bitter criticism from Republicans who vowed to fight the bill’s altered earmark-transparency rules.
The majority re-drafted the ethics bill after Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) held up conference talks by seeking assurances of the earmark language’s fate. Many provisions already approved by both chambers remained intact, including stronger disclosure rules for lobbyists and curbs on corporate jet travel.
But the new measure’s treatment of earmarking, which conservatives consider the root of recent congressional scandals, sparked immediate contention. Republicans protested the removal of a ban on trading earmarks for votes, as well as the transferal of authority to certify compliance with earmark disclosure to chairmen or the majority leader rather than the Senate parliamentarian.
“Under this bill, the American people would be forced to trust Sen. Reid and Sen. Byrd — two of the biggest earmarkers in the Senate — to certify earmark disclosure,” DeMint said in a statement. “This bill allows the fox to guard the henhouse and makes a joke of ethics reform.”
Reid spokesman Jim Manley called DeMint’s complaints “disingenuous at best and intellectually dishonest at worst.”
“We worked very hard to craft a strong ethics package,” Manley said. “The only thing that stood in our way was Sen. DeMint.”
Senior Democratic aides asserted the new ethics bill merely brings the original Senate earmark language — which DeMint often noted was identical to Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) — in line with what the House passed as a rules change in January.
Requiring the parliamentarian to rule on multiple challenges to earmark disclosure rules would risk miring the Senate in gridlock, the aides said. Members retain the right to offer amendments to strike earmarks that they believe were not disclosed properly, although the new bill does not guarantee consideration.
Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), DeMint’s frequent partner in anti-earmark efforts, trained his fire on changes made to the ethics bill’s restriction on earmarks that provide financial benefit to lawmakers or their families. Prohibiting only earmarks that exclusively benefit lawmakers and their families, as opposed to benefits that include business partners or neighbors, is “obscene,” Coburn said.
“The new language mirrors existing Senate rules which have done nothing to prevent these serious conflicts of interest,” Coburn said.
The House is expected to take up the bill on Tuesday on the suspensions calendar, sending it to the Senate in a privileged message that requires only one motion to cut off debate and vote, should DeMint and fellow Republicans attempt a filibuster.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has vowed to keep his chamber in session over the weekend and into August recess to pass the bill if necessary.
Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) lent the new bill his endorsement, which Democratic leaders hope will tamp down any lingering concerns among members who fought for the strongest possible reforms. Feingold issued two separate statements yesterday, the first unequivocally hailing the legislation’s lobbying provisions.
Of the earmark anxiety, Feingold said: “Congress must not let people who oppose reform change the subject. Right now, the simple question senators must ask themselves is whether we want to change the way Washington does business or not.”
Watchdog groups had braced themselves for a dilution of the bill’s rules for disclosing campaign contributions bundled by lobbyists, and their expectations were born out on Monday. The new ethics package shifts the reporting burden to candidates, rather than K Street, and likely will not take effect for at least six months as the Federal Election Commission determines how to implement the bundling rule.
Still, the watchdogs threw their support behind the package and reminded members that a vote against it would be considered a vote against ethics reform.
“Opponents may claim they want a stronger bill, but at this juncture a vote against the measure would go far beyond letting the perfect be the enemy of the good,” the policy director at the Campaign Legal Center, Meredith McGehee, said. “It would be outright obstruction, plain and simple.”
An ethics and campaign finance lawyer, Ken Gross, said the FEC already has bundling disclosure requirements on its books, although it does not enforce them.
He said few people are aware of the rules, which require lobbyists to file reports instead of lawmakers, as specified in the new bill. The new bundling language is far more specific about what activity constitutes bundling, so it will be difficult to avoid.
Gross said he expected the new law to “wake up the FEC” to its enforcement responsibilities.
Susan Crabtree contributed to this report.