WASHINGTON – Ethical housecleaning occupied the House on its first day back to work Wednesday, with lawmakers taking steps to distance themselves from lobbyists and take away the pensions of members of Congress and other policy-makers who break the law.
The first order of business for the House was a proposal to change internal rules to bar former members now working as lobbyists from the House floor and gym. Lobbyist spouses of former members would also no longer be able to make their pitches on the floor of the chamber or the gym
The rules change was a prelude to more comprehensive legislation, growing out of recent lobbying scandals, to prevent lobbyists from showering lawmakers with inappropriate gifts, meals and trips to exotic locations.
The House Government Reform Committee on Wednesday opened hearings on a proposal, offered by panel chairman Tom Davis, R-Va., to forfeit the retirement benefits of members of Congress and other policy-makers convicted of crimes punishable by more than a year in prison. Under current law, it generally takes a national security offense to lose a pension.
"A federal pension is a sweet deal," Davis said at the opening of the hearing. "This is a harsh penalty," he said, "but so is the damage done by even one case of undue influence."
The hearing comes two months after eight-term Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham, R-Calif., resigned his seat and pleaded guilty to accepting $2.4 million in bribes, mainly from defense contractors.
Cunningham, who is to be sentenced in February, is still eligible for his congressional pension, which according to an Office of Personnel Management formula would be around $40,000 a year.
The move to ban members-turned-lobbyists from the House chamber and gym "is not going in any way to be the end of the process," said Rep. David Dreier, R-Calif., chairman of the Rules Committee.
Dreier was crafting a GOP leadership package on curbing lobbying excesses that will include restrictions on hosting trips and giving gifts to lawmakers and new disclosure requirements. It would also require former lawmakers to wait longer before taking jobs as lobbyists.
GOP leaders had indicated that they also wanted to address campaign finance issues, including restricting spending by tax-exempt activist groups known as 527s. However, Democrats voiced opposition to bringing that issue into the mix, and GOP aides said the question of 527s, named for a section of the tax code, may now be moving on a different track.
The Senate also is preparing to take up lobbying ethics legislation as Congress reacts to the scandal involving former lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who recently pleaded guilty to felony charges involving his treating lawmakers to meals, trips, skybox seats and campaign contributions, mainly with millions of dollars sometimes fleeced from American Indian tribe clients.
But despite the election-year enthusiasm of members of Congress to dispel the image of voters that they were on the take from lobbyists, there were already some voices of dissent about the various actions being proposed.
Rep. Jack Kingston, R-Ga., speaking after he raised the issue at a GOP leadership meeting, said it was "somewhat superfluous to ban ex-members from the gym. Nobody's down there lobbying."
Rep. Alcee Hastings, D-Fla., speaking at a Rules Committee hearing, said former members now working to provide information as lobbyists should be considered a resource. "We're not bad people," he said.
And Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., noted that "I've been going to the gym for 24 years, and I've never been lobbied in the gym. Of course, I'm pretty ugly naked." The Senate gym is not affected by the House rules changes.
Democratic leaders were also quick to warn that they would oppose GOP-written legislation that used the lobbying ethics issue to push through legislation that favors Republicans, particularly provisions restricting independent 527 organizations such as MoveOn.org that were valuable moneyraisers for the Democrats in 2004.
"They want to undermine our effort to fund our message," House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said at a news conference Tuesday. "I won't feel constrained to vote" for legislation that Republicans use to jam through their own agenda, he said.