WASHINGTON - April 18 -
Against the backdrop of one of the most serious congressional ethics scandals in history, the House of Representatives is poised on April 25 to pass a so-called ethics and lobby reform bill that not only fails to meaningfully address the still-unraveling scandal, but seems to disguise ways of maintaining the status quo.
For example, one provision in the bill would temporarily ban privately funded travel for Members of Congress, an area that has been rife with abuse. Guess when the ban expires? December. That way, Members at home campaigning get to tell constituents that they supported travel “reform,” but as soon as Congress is back in session, it’s business as usual.
Another provision would prohibit lobbyists from flying on private corporate jets with Members of Congress, because of outrage over the privileged access these lobbyists now enjoy on the flights. This reform misses the problem completely. First, prohibiting registered lobbyists from these flights simply means that another representative from the trip sponsor will sit in the lobbyist’s seat and likely make the same pitch to the member of Congress. Second, and more importantly, the Members who fly on private charter jets sponsored by corporations or unions will continue to receive a huge discount from only having to pay the first class fare for the ticket, and not the full cost of chartering the plane.
Travel on corporate jets is a problem because it allows lobbyists to give Members a valuable and enticing gift – a flight on a corporate jet – which costs far above the $50 gift limit. Simply prohibiting lobbyists on these flights only partially deals with the issue of access and completely misses the problem of the end-run around gift rules. If Members of Congress fly on a chartered plane, then they should have to pay for the cost of chartering the plane, just like the rest of us.
The bill also has two serious loopholes with respect to new disclosure requirements for lobbyists who fundraise for Members of Congress. Since the scandal around lobbyist Jack Abramoff demonstrated the influence of contributions from lobbyists and their clients, this bill proposes that lobbyists disclose the campaign contributions and money spent organizing fundraisers for Members of Congress. The lobby reform bill in the House, however, so narrowly defines what qualifies as a fundraising event for a member of Congress that it will be easy to design campaign fundraisers that do not meet the
definition, and therefore will not have to be disclosed. It also only applies to fundraisers hosted “to honor” a Member of Congress. If an invitation uses other wording, the organizers would not be required to disclose.
In addition to weak proposals and loopholes in the bill, there are a number of reforms not addressed at all. For example, the bill includes no mechanism for enforcing and monitoring old and new rules. The House Ethics Committee and the process for enforcing House ethics rules have been in complete shambles for well over a year and have no public credibility. The Ethics Committee has been inoperative for essentially all of this Congress and shows no signs of addressing numerous matters that have been and are before the Committee.
Representatives Christopher Shays (R-CT) and Marty Meehan (D-MA) have proposed an amendment to H.R. 4975 to establish an independent Office of Public Integrity to work with the Ethics Committee and assist in enforcing the House ethics rules. The Republican leadership of the House is also reportedly contemplating breaking the bill into several pieces and moving them separately, and in some cases prohibiting any amendments from being considered. It is essential that members of the House be given the opportunity to vote on this uniquely important amendment.
In addition, Members must be given the opportunity to vote on a number of other important amendments on the floor, including one requiring the disclosure of huge sums lobbying firms are secretly spending on campaigns to stimulate lobbying of Congress by the public, including multimillion dollar advertising campaigns. Although there has been much outrage expressed over the excesses of the Abramoff scandal, this lobby reform legislation does not require the disclosure of grassroots lobbying – which was at the heart of Abramoff strategy to defraud Indian tribes.
Finally, Congress needs to consider an amendment to curb the revolving door of Members leaving Congress and joining lobby firms to lobby their former colleagues to influence congressional decisions. Nearly 50 percent of representatives and senators who leave Congress go to lucrative jobs with lobbying firms. We believe they should have a two-year “cooling off” period before they can lobby their colleagues.
“It is astounding that we’ve seen extensive corruption in Congress exposed and alleged in the Abramoff scandal, yet Congress’ only response is to require an electronic database for lobbyist disclosure,” said Common Cause President Chellie Pingree. “That’s like trying to put out a barn fire with a garden hose.”
“The largest Congressional scandal in more than a decade and the House lobby reform
proposal offers not even a slap on the wrist; just sleight of hand from a Congress more concerned about facing the voters than facing the problem.”
“The League calls on Congress to enact lobby reform, and to do it through an open process that allows for open debate and meaningful amendments,” said League of Women Voters President Kay J. Maxwell.