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US Democratic Lawmakers Proposing New Ethics Rules January 4, 2007

Posted by notapundit in Congress, Politics, US News.
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WASHINGTON (AP)–Lawmakers will still be able to hop on a plane and decamp to touristy hot spots on someone else’s dime. But under new rules coming up for a vote Thursday they will have a lot more explaining to do.

The new rules, unveiled Wednesday, expand current bans on some privately financed trips, prohibit travel on corporate jets and require greater public disclosure of targeted, and often hidden, special interest legislation.

While more restrictive, the new standards rely less on prohibiting behavior than they do on shining more light on how Congress goes about its business.

“We will pass the most effective, wide-ranging reform of ethics and lobbyists that has ever passed this institution,” said Rep. Martin Meehan, D-Mass., who has long advocated tighter restrictions on the relationship between money and politics. “It’s the breath of fresh air that the American people demanded in the last election.”

The rules will continue prohibitions on travel paid by lobbyists, representatives of foreign entities or by groups that employ lobbyists or foreign agents. All other privately financed trips would require pre-approval by the House ethics committee and detailed descriptions of the purpose of trips.

The biggest current spenders on congressional travel are educational or advocacy foundations that send congressional delegations around the globe. Some are groups founded by lobbyists or affiliated to organizations that lobby Congress. Under the new rules, the House ethics committee would have to determine whether the trips sponsored by such groups are educational in nature or junkets with no educational value.

Lawmakers will still be able to load legislation with funding that benefits special interests. But they’ll have to put that work, often hidden in the past, on display for everyone to see. Congressional committees will have to specifically highlight such provisions in legislation and identify the lawmakers seeking them. In addition, committees will have to make public all requests made by lawmakers for such funding, called “earmarks.”

“They will be reduced, not eliminated,” said incoming Democratic leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md.

Lobbyists would be prohibited from giving any gifts to members of Congress. Current rules permit gifts of $50. Tickets to entertainment events would have to be priced at face value – a restriction aimed at ending a practice of pricing professional basketball or ice hockey tickets at $49 to escape the ceiling on gifts.

Watchdog groups applauded the Democratic proposals as significant steps toward curbing the means by which lobbyists seek to influence members of Congress. They particularly singled out the travel restrictions and prohibitions on use of corporate jets as an important way to curb often uncommon access by lobbyists to lawmakers.

“We think this is a strong package in addressing the abuses that have been occurring in private travel, in providing gifts, meals and entertainment to lawmakers and in corporations making their planes available to members at very low costs,” said Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, an independent group that advocates tougher ethics rules.

Still, watchdog groups and lawmakers such as Meehan continued to insist that Congress needs to pass legislation creating an independent office of public integrity to assist in the policing and enforcement of ethics rules.

The changes are an outgrowth of the travel and lobbying scandals associated with lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who arranged for golfing trips in Scotland for former House Republican leader Tom DeLay, Rep. Bob Ney, R-Ohio, and others. Abramoff pleaded guilty to public corruption charges for seeking to buy influence in Congress.

The reputation of the Republican-led Congress was further marred when former Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham, R-Calif., said he accepted $2.4 million in bribes to insert provisions in legislation to help defense contractors. Cunningham is serving an eight-year prison sentence.

The Cunningham and Abramoff episodes prompted Democrats to decry a “culture of corruption” in Congress. Throughout last year’s congressional campaign, they reminded voters of the scandals and called on them to vote Republicans out of power. The scandals also prompted an initial flurry of demands to ban privately financed travel and to ban legislative earmarks. Some advocates of ethics changes have argued that if a congressional trip is worthwhile, it should be paid with public funds.

The rules changes offered Wednesday reflect political realities, lawmakers and representatives of watchdog groups said.

“In the ideal world, we would want privately financed travel banned,” said Meredith McGehee, policy director of the Campaign Legal Center. “However, in these days of budget deficits and accusations of junkets, there is political reality and it’s not going to happen at this moment. We understand that.”

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