Published March 15, 2006
WASHINGTON – Stung by scandal, House Republican leaders announced plans Wednesday to impose at least a temporary ban on privately funded travel by lawmakers, along with a requirement for lobbyists to disclose the gifts they bestow on House members.
The recommendations will "sustain the integrity of the Congress as we move forward," House Speaker Dennis Hastert said at a news confernece.
"We need to bring about bold, strong reform," added Rep. David Dreier, the California Republican involved in assembling a set of proposals generally designed to limit the influence of lobbyists.
There was no immediate reaction from Democrats, who have already unveiled ethics legislation of their own and accuse Republicans of creating a "culture of corruption" in Congress.
The GOP leadership outlined its plans at a closed-door meeting of the rank and file, but did not provide any details in writing.
Officials said Tuesday night that one change would require lawmakers for the first time to disclose when they direct federal funds to be spent on pet projects, the first attempt in years to rein in a practice known as earmarking.
It was not immediately clear what changes, if any, had been made to that proposal overnight.
Nor did Hastert say when the first of the recommended measures would reach the House floor. Still, the agreement around the leadership table on Tuesday signaled a renewed determination by Republicans to respond to an issue that flared unexpectedly early in the year.
Companion legislation is pending in the Senate.
Lobbyist Jack Abramoff's guilty plea on corruption charges in January sent shudders through Republican ranks and led to former Majority Leader Tom DeLay's decision to step down from his House leadership post.
Hastert vowed then that legislation to curtail the influence of lobbyists would be a priority item.
Apart from provisions relating to lobbyists, Republican officials said Tuesday night the leadership was calling for new restrictions on political organizations that currently can accept unlimited donations from individual contributors. The proposal would place a cap of slightly more than $27,000 on contributions, along with a requirement that donors be disclosed by name.
Republicans claim that Democrats benefit far more than the GOP from such groups, and tried unsuccessfully late last year to reduce their clout.
The new disclosure requirement on gifts would apply to food, drink or other items lobbyists give lawmakers, according to officials. Otherwise, the House gift rules would remain unchanged. Lawmakers may currently accept gifts of up to $50 in value, totaling no more than $100 in a year from any individual.
The ban on privately funded travel would remain in place until the House ethics committee was able to establish an alternative designed to scrutinize trips in advance and make sure they complied with the rules.
One of the unanswered questions in the Abramoff investigation is whether members of Congress knowingly took official action that benefited his clients in exchange for campaign contributions and gifts such as trips abroad.
Lawmakers would be allowed to fly on corporate jets at the cost of a first-class ticket, according to Republicans familiar with the plan, but registered lobbyists would be barred from such flights.
Details of the recommended change involving so-called earmarks -- the practice of lawmakers commanding federal funds for pet projects -- was unclear. The issue has divided Republicans, with many conservatives demanding an end to the practice and members of the Appropriations Committee and many others defending it.
Officials said the GOP leaders wanted to make one significant change affecting House campaigns. As outlined, it would allow the Republican and Democratic campaign committees to provide unlimited coordinated assistance to candidates.
Current law allows the committees to provide about $70,000 in coordinated funds. Anything in excess must be spent without communication between the committee and the candidate.