WASHINGTON – A divided House on Wednesday passed legislation to address the lobbying scandals and ethical missteps that have tarnished the reputation of Congress. Republicans said it would define bright lines of right and wrong while Democrats said it was a feeble attempt at reform that won't fool voters this fall.
The 217-213 vote, largely along party lines, sends the bill to negotiations with the Senate, which goes further in banning meals and gifts from lobbyists and slowing the movement of former members to lobbying jobs.
The House bill, said its chief sponsor, Rules Committee Chairman David Dreier, R-Calif., "seeks to uphold the highest standards of integrity when it comes to Congress's interaction with outside groups."
He pointed out that it would require more frequent reporting by lobbyists on their activities, increase penalties and fines for transgressions and subject both congressional staff and members to ethics training. Lawmakers convicted of bribery would also face losing their pensions.
But Democrats, and the good government groups pushing for stronger legislation, said the House bill would do little to stop acts such as the influence peddling of former lobbyist Jack Ambramoff and the corruption of former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham, R-Calif., who was convicted and sentenced to more than eight years in prison for taking some $2.4 million in bribes.
It's "such a disappointment," said Rep. Louise M. Slaughter of New York, top Democrat on the Rules Committee. "It does nothing to fix the battered and broken political process of this Congress."
The House bill also requires preapproval for lawmakers making privately funded trips and has new disclosure requirements for earmarks, the special projects that individual lawmakers and their lobbyist allies often quietly insert into legislation.
The White House praised the bill, saying that "strengthening the ethical standards that govern lobbying activities is a necessary step" in upholding the public trust. The administration also urged overhaul of the earmark process.
But Democrats and some private groups said the House bill would not ban gifts and meals from lobbyists, require lobbyists to report on fundraising activities or double to two years the time a retiring lawmaker must wait before taking a job lobbying Congress — all provisions of the bill the Senate has passed.
They also complained that Republican leaders would not allow a vote on a proposal to create a new independent office to oversee House ethics issues, or to force lawmakers who hitch rides on corporate jets to pay charter flight rates.
Democrats did join Republicans in approving one amendment, offered by Reps. Don Lungren, R-Calif., and George Miller, D-Calif., that permits privately sponsored travel with preapproval by two-thirds of the ethics committee. The measure also requires the committee to come up with recommendations on a permanent travel policy by June 15.
The original bill put a temporary ban, until the end of this year, on all privately funded travel, but many members protested that this would prevent them from participating in worthwhile seminars.
Future efforts to reach a compromise with the Senate are also complicated by a House Republican plan to attach a provision that limits donations to nonprofit political groups known as 527s. Such groups tended to back Democrats in the 2004 presidential election, and Senate Democrats have said they will oppose any lobbying bill that includes the campaign finance measure.
The House returned to Washington last January determined to act quickly to rectify the damage done by the actions of the now-convicted Abramoff, who skimmed millions of dollars from his Indian tribe clients while treating the lawmakers he was seeking to influence with free meals and overseas trips. That was quickly followed by Cunningham pleading guilty to unrelated bribery charges.
In its first week back, the House banned former members-turned-lobbyists from the House floor and gym.
But proposals by House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., to ban privately sponsored travel and gifts from lobbyists ran into resistance from rank-and-file lawmakers. The bill almost died last week when Republicans on the Appropriations Committee threatened to vote against it because the new rules for earmark disclosure applied only to appropriations, or spending, bills.
The procedural vote to set the rules for debate narrowly passed last Thursday, on a 216-207 vote, only after the GOP leadership promised the appropriators that the earmark provisions would be applied to other policy and tax bills in the final version that emerges from House-Senate negotiations.