WASHINGTON – The House started its legislative year with a mostly symbolic step Wednesday toward removing the taint of influence-peddling scandals, voting to ban former colleagues from lobbying in the House chamber.
Democrats, seeking to tie majority Republicans to political corruption in an election-year, clamored for more moves.
A rules change that passed 379-50 bars from the House floor or the members' gym ex-representatives who now work as lobbyists. The restriction also applies to former members' spouses who are lobbyists.
The chairman of the House Rules Committee said "this is a first step in our process of greater reform."
Rep. David Dreier, R-Calif., also said he was working with Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., and others on a proposal to slow the pace of former members' shift into lobbying jobs and impose new limits on gifts and trips provided by lobbyists and their clients.
The momentum for ethics legislation comes from several bribery and influence-peddling cases. The chief one involves former lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who treated lawmakers to lavish meals, skyboxes and trips with money enticed from American Indian tribes and other clients.
Democrats contended the change will do little to address the problem of unsavory relations between lawmakers and high-priced lobbyists.
"We've got a serious systemic problem of corruption," said Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass. Congress has become "a vast right-wing kleptocracy," he said, and "putting people out of the gym is not even a beginning for dealing seriously with that problem."
Some Republicans said they thought denying access to the gym was inconsequential. "It's a game of who's the most righteous and right now we're playing that game and I think it's not very productive," Rep. Joel Hefley, R-Colo., former head of the House ethics committee, told reporters.
Rep. John Shadegg, R-Ariz., who is running for the House majority leader's job, asked, "Why aren't we up on the floor passing a bill right now that says a bribed member of Congress doesn't get to collect his pension?"
That issue was the subject of a hearing Wednesday in the House Government Reform Committee.
Legislation introduced by the committee chairman, Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., would deny retirement benefits to members of Congress and other policymakers who are convicted of crimes punishable by more than a year in prison.
Under current law, it generally takes a conviction on a national security offense to have a government pension forfeited.
"The fact that public servants who have seriously violated their duties to the public would be rewarded by a lifetime pension seems grossly unfair to average citizens," Common Cause president Chellie Pingree said in a statement at the hearing.
Two months ago, eight-term Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham, R-Calif., resigned and pleaded guilty to accepting $2.4 million in bribes, mainly from defense contractors.
Cunningham, who is to be sentenced in February, is eligible for his congressional pension, worth about $40,000 annually, according to a formula from the Office of Personnel Management.
The Senate is preparing to consider lobbying ethics legislation as Congress tries to repair the damage to its reputation incurred in the Abramoff scandal.
"We have a once in a generation opportunity to adopt genuine and far-reaching lobbying reform," said Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn.
He joined Sens. Barack Obama, D-Ill., and Russ Feingold, D-Wis., at a news conference to promote a Democratic bill. "Shame on us if we don't take advantage of this opportunity," Lieberman said.
The bill would slow the "revolving door" that allows lawmakers and staff to take lobbying jobs after leaving Congress; stop lobbyists from trying to influence lawmakers with gifts and trips; and create an independent office of public integrity to enforce the new rules. House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California said 160 Democrats had joined in introducing the bill in the House.