WASHINGTON – On the day former lobbyist Jack Abramoff was sentenced to prison, the Senate took steps to mend its ways with ethics legislation that shines light on lawmaker relations with lobbyists.
The first lobbying overhaul legislation in a decade sailed through the Senate on a 90-8 vote Wednesday, but the verdict was still out on whether it would lessen the influence of high-paid lobbyists or improve the tarnished image of lawmakers facing re-election this fall.
The issue now moves to the House, which in the weeks ahead will consider its own version of lobbying legislation. The House bill, like the Senate companion, is heavy on disclosing lobbyist activities but imposes few new outright prohibitions on lawmakers or lobbyists.
One difference is that the House bill puts a temporary ban, through the end of the year, on privately funded travel. The Senate bill would require senators to get pre-approval from the Senate ethics committee before accepting trips from private sponsors.
Golfing trips for lawmakers to Scotland paid for by clients of Abramoff were among the abuses cited in driving lawmakers to tighten rules on accepting lobbyist gifts. Abramoff, convicted of bilking Indian clients out of millions of dollars, was sentenced in Miami on Wednesday to five years and 10 months in prison in an unrelated conspiracy and wire fraud case involving the purchase of a fleet of gambling boats.
Abramoff has agreed to cooperate with prosecutors in a corruption probe that could involve up to 20 members of Congress, including former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas.
One source of contention between the House and Senate may have been resolved when House leaders decided to move separately on legislation restricting outside political groups, called 527s, that are permitted to accept donations of unlimited size. Senate Democrats said they would try to stop passage of any lobbying bill that includes provisions on the 527 groups, which tend to favor Democrats.
The Senate ethics legislation would bar lawmakers from accepting gifts or meals from lobbyists and force them to wait two years after leaving office, up from the current one year limit, before accepting a job lobbying Congress.
Members of Congress still could use corporate jets for the price of a first-class ticket and accept free lodging, travel and meals from non-lobbyists.
The bill requires lobbyists to file quarterly electronic reports of their activities, up from the current two times a year. They also would have to disclose their contributions to officeholders and political fundraisers and their "grass-roots" lobbying activities -- helping clients to encourage the general public, through mass mailings or ads, to contact federal officials.
"This bill is not perfect," said Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada. "But it is a significant improvement over current law, and will help restore the public's confidence in government."
Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, a key sponsor of the bill, also emphasized the importance of the bill in showing Americans that Congress acts with integrity. "We cannot tackle the big issues facing our country if the public does not trust us to act in the public interest," she said.
Despite the overwhelming vote, the bill had numerous detractors.
"The United States Senate failed the American people today," read a statement issued by the Campaign Legal Center, Common Cause, Democracy 21, League of Women Voters, Public Citizen and U.S. PIRG.
The groups said that in rejecting the idea of creating an independent office to investigate Senate ethical violations, the Senate had no credible means of enforcing ethics rules.
Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., a strong supporter of the independent office and one of the eight senators to vote against the bill, said the Senate had "missed a once-in-a-decade opportunity to clean up the way we do business in Washington."
The legislation also seeks to restrain earmarks, those thousands of special projects that make their way into legislation. Former Rep. Randy Cunningham, R-Calif., went to prison this year after using the earmark process to help defense contractors who had given him bribes.
"I think a lot of us would have liked to have known who sponsored the amendments that were put into the defense appropriations bill by former Rep. Cunningham, who is now in jail," said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who pushed unsuccessfully for stronger language to combat earmarks.
The Senate bill would require senators to identify the source and purpose of earmarks. It also would set up a procedure whereby lawmakers could strip out earmarks that are not in original bills but are later attached to House-Senate conference reports.
The Senate also decided to end the practice of secret "holds," wherein a single senator can block action on a bill or nomination without revealing that he is the source of the delay.
The Senate bill steers clear of the controversial issue of campaign finance reform, which many said was far more important to reducing the influence of special interests and big money.