Senate Panel Forwards Lobbying Reform Package

Legislation that would force lobbyists to disclose more about their spending to influence the political process advanced Thursday in the Senate, but minus a key provision that would have set up a new independent office to monitor congressional ethics.

The 12-1 vote in the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee sends the bill to the Senate floor, where it could come up next week.

That would be about two months after former lobbyist Jack Abramoff pleaded guilty in a federal corruption investigation involving his providing of lavish trips, meals and golf outings "in exchange for a series of official acts."

The relative speed in moving the bill reflects election-year concerns that lobbying and ethics scandals have alienated voters.

"The consequences of these scandals are so antithetical to our democracy and so damaging to Congress that we must come together to produce reform or face further derision and mistrust," said Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., who sponsored the bill with committee chairman Susan Collins, R-Maine.

Under the Collins-Lieberman bill, lobbyists would have to file quarterly reports of their activities, instead of the current twice a year, and would have to ensure Internet access to those reports. Lobbyists would also have to provide details of trips they arrange for legislators and make annual disclosures of their campaign contributions or fundraisers for politicians.

Retiring lawmakers would have to wait two years before accepting jobs lobbying Congress, up from the current one-year waiting period.

But in a 11-5 vote, the committee decided to eliminate a provision that would have set up an office of public integrity, an agency with investigative and subpoena powers that would complement and assist the work of the House and Senate ethics committees.

"Restoring public confidence is essential and the public is very leery about whether we can set our own rules," Collins said in explaining the need for the new office. She and Lieberman stressed that the ethics committees would still have final say on proceeding with investigations or charging members with violations.

But three committee members who are also on the six-member ethics committee balked, saying they were doing a good job and adding another of bureaucracy would only complicate their work.

"I fear that the ethics committee will become little more than a paralyzed political body," said Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio, chairman of the ethics committee.

Lieberman vowed to reintroduce the provision when the bill reaches the Senate floor.

Lieberman, joined by Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich, was successful in winning approval of an amendment that would require paid lobbyists to reveal information about grassroots lobbying, helping clients to encourage the general public, through mass mailings or advertising, to contact federal officials. Smaller grassroots lobbying efforts aimed at 500 people or less would be exempt.

On Tuesday, the Senate Rules Committee approved similar lobbying legislation that included a new procedure for senators to wean earmarks, those specifically targeted and at times wasteful projects that lawmakers like to take home to their constituents, from larger bills.

Any single senator would be able to raise a point of order against an earmark that didn't get a committee vote, and 60 votes would be needed to keep it alive.

The full Senate will consider some combination of the two bills, which overlap in such areas as extending the waiting period for lobbyist jobs to two years.

The House has been slower on the lobbying issue, so far only moving to ban former-members-turned-lobbyists from the House floor and gym. House Rules Committee Chairman David Dreier, R-Calif., at a hearing on the issue Thursday, urged unity, saying that "with one voice, we can improve the stature of Congress in the eyes of the American people."

But House GOP leaders have met rank-and-file opposition to their earlier proposal to ban all privately funded travel for lawmakers, and on Thursday the top Democrat on the House ethics committee, Alan Mollohan of West Virginia, dismissed a Dreier proposal to hold joint hearings on the issue.

Mollohan said the ethics committee, which has been inactive for more than a year because of partisan disputes, was trying to restore its nonpartisan character, and an open hearing on the ethics issue would undermine that effort.