WASHINGTON – Senators moved Tuesday to put more muscle into legislation to sanitize their tarnished image with proposals requiring lawmakers to pay charter rates for corporate jet rides and shell out the full cost for Skybox tickets to sporting events.
Members of Congress need to "demonstrate once and for all that we care more about representing the American people than the perks of power," Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said.
Picking up on the anti-corruption theme that helped bring them to power, Democrats in both the House and Senate have started off with legislation to ban gifts and meals from lobbyists, limit privately paid travel and shine more light on the special projects, or earmarks, that have proliferated in legislation.
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Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Republican leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., on Tuesday offered several alternatives aimed at strengthening the Senate bill, which has been criticized as being inadequate in several key areas.
Among the proposals were to require lawmakers to pay the full price of tickets to sporting and entertainment events and to expand the definition of earmarks to include targeted tax and tariff benefits and projects routed through a federal agency that benefit only one nonfederal entity.
Feinstein, the incoming Rules Committee chairman, said this would help stop the kind of backroom deals that sent former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham, R-Calif., to jail last year for taking bribes from defense for his aid in steering Pentagon spending.
Reid separately offered an amendment to require lawmakers, already barred under the bill from participating in trips involving lobbyists, to pay full charter rates when they catch rides on corporate jets. New House rules adopted last week effectively banned all travel on corporate planes.
Currently lawmakers usually pay the equivalent of a first-class ticket, much less expensive than a charter rate, when they travel by private jet. Members from larger states such as Alaska or Texas argue that they would be unable to visit remote areas of their states without using non-commercial jets.
The amended bill, in addition to requiring a two-year waiting period before former members can lobby Congress, would bar lawmakers from negotiating for jobs with lobbying firms while still in office.
"We should not tolerate a committee chairman shepherding the Medicare prescription drug bill through Congress at the same time that he is negotiating a job with the pharmaceutical industry to become their top lobbyist," said Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill.
He was referring to former Rep. Billy Tauzin, R-La., who left Congress in 2005 to head the trade group representing pharmaceutical companies. Tauzin had chaired the committee that regulated drug makers and was a key player in passing the prescription drug bill that critics said was favorable to the pharmaceutical industry.
The Senate is expected to be on the ethics bill through next week, and it is unclear when they will vote on the proposed amendments.
The legislation, in the wake of the scandals involving former lobbyist Jack Abramoff and Cunningham last year, has strong support, but Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., warned his colleagues to be careful of overreacting and "feckless positioning to make it look good." He said he was "offended that somebody says that for the price of a meal I can be had by a lobbyist or anyone else."
Lott also urged caution in considering another idea that is certain to come up during the debate, the creation of an independent office of public integrity to investigate ethics charges against lawmakers.
But Democratic Whip Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., said the lobbying bill falls short of addressing the bigger question of the financing of political campaigns. The bill would ban a lobbyist from buying him lunch, he said, but "tomorrow that same lobbyist can have me over for lunch at his lobbying firm to provide campaign funds for my reelection campaign and its perfectly legal."
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