WASHINGTON – House Democrats easily swept through an ethics reform package in their first week as the new majority, but government watchdogs say Congress skipped some critical reforms that would have demonstrated a clearer commitment to their pledge to clean up the "culture of corruption" in Washington, D.C.
Ethics watchers say overall they are pleased with the new ethics and lobbying rules changes, but much more needs to be done.
"I think [Democrats] recognize that they won in large part on ethics reform and they have to do something," said Melanie Sloan, director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.
"It was a good start. They did pass some good, new rules," she said. "The biggest issue [of contention] is the lack of oversight and enforcement mechanisms."
"They ducked the hard stuff," said Gary Ruskin, director of the Congressional Accountability Project. "It's not to say it's not a step in the right direction, but it's not as big of a step."
The rules package, passed on Jan. 5 in a 430-1 vote, included several new rules for lawmakers, including a ban on gifts from lobbyists or groups that hire lobbyists; a requirement that lawmakers explain and publicly sign-off on any earmarks they propose and a ban on travel on corporate jets paid for by lobbyists, taxpayers or campaign funds.
Members can no longer take trips funded by lobbyists and must submit all trips paid for by outside groups for pre-approval to ensure the rules are being followed. The leadership is also not allowed to leave open a vote while leadership strong-arms members for support.
For instance, Ruskin complained that non-profit organizations that do not hire registered lobbyists can still give legislators gifts, so in theory, lobbyists could join forces with non-profits to get around the ban.
He added that one rule that could be tougher is a ban on members soliciting campaign funds from lobbyists who may need future support on legislation.
"Neither the House or Senate has ethics rules against trading official action for campaign contributions — it's kind of amazing," he said.
The only lawmaker to vote against the package, Rep. Dan Burton, R-Ind., said the rules do not go far enough and are confusing and unenforceable.
“I believe that instead of coming up with new reporting requirements that members and staff can inadvertently violate, the only true solution is to have complete transparency and reportability,” Burton said.
Rep. David Drier of California, the ranking Republican on the House Rules Committee, voted for the provisions, but said he too doesn't they go far enough.
As head of the panel last session, Dreier led the unsuccessful GOP effort to change the rules to make it harder to fire members from their leadership posts when they are indicted for crimes — a move many considered a nod to embattled former Majority Leader Tom DeLay, who faced indictment in a Texas criminal probe involving his political action committee.
But last week, Dreier introduced a bill to overturn one of the rules changes approved in the package that shields votes taken in the Rules Committee from being recorded in the official congressional record.
“The Democrats decision to roll back sunshine requirements on Rules Committee votes is as troubling as it is baffling,” Dreier said. “At best, this is a solution in search of a problem. At worst, it’s an attempt to shield the Rules Committee and its majority members from public scrutiny of their actions.”
In Search of a Stronger Ethics Panel
On the other side of Capitol Hill, senators are wrapping up their own reform rules, including similar restrictions on lobbyist-related gifts, travel and the persistent practice of lawmakers using the "revolving door" to go from the legislative chamber immediately into lobbying jobs when they leave office.
A proposal by Sens. Susan Collins, R-Maine and Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., would also create an Office of Public Integrity, an independent body to take on the enforcement responsibilities of the Senate Select Committee on Ethics.
Critics say the House package should have included a similar provision since without it, new reforms are unlikely to be effectively enforced.
“There were a lot of rules before and no one enforced them,” said Sloan. “The ethics committee has shown a complete inability to police fellow members of Congress.”
Sloan said she would like to see a department with a lead counsel and a staff of attorneys that would handle not only ethics complaints but the new load of travel requests and other inquiries that will push through the ethics process each year.
Ruskin said he would like to see the powers of the ethics committee, known as the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, strengthened.
“This is the kind of thing we are hoping the Democrats would do and so far haven’t,” he said.
Neither Rep. Stephanie Tubbs Jones, D-Ohio, new chairwoman of the ethics committee, nor Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., would comment for the article, but Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., who served on the committee in the last Congress said he is optimistic about the new rules.
"While the ethics package that passed in the House earlier this year is not perfect, we will be working in a bipartisan manner to make sure the rules put in place are followed," Cole told FOXNews.com.
"Both sides of the aisle are willing to do whatever it takes to win back the confidence and trust of the American people," he added.
Drew Hammill, spokesman for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said the ethics and lobbying reforms, part of the new Democratic leadership's first 100-hour legislative push, is the first serious step toward cleaning up the House after 12 years of Republican rule.
“In terms of the reform groups out there, we’re always willing to listen to their concerns and want to address them in the best way we can,” he said.
Hammill said that not everything that was desired by Democrats and reformers could be handled in this legislative fix. The campaign finance issue, for example, would require a statutory change in the campaign finance laws.
As for the separate enforcement body, Hammill said a study group has been tasked with coming up with recommendations and is expected to return with something by March.
“[Pelosi] wants careful study of this,” he said.
Past Scandals, Future Reforms
Political analysts say the Democrats — as well as their Republican counterparts — had to do something after scandal erupted relating to convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who had been trading gifts and favors for legislative support on the Hill. Abramoff, now in prison, played a role in taking down no fewer than four Republican members last year, including DeLay, Rep. Bob Ney of Ohio, Rep. Richard Pombo of California and Sen. Conrad Burns of Montana.
Also shamed by scandal was Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham, R-Calif., who is serving time after admitting to taking bribes. Rep. William Jefferson, D-La., has been accused of taking bribes for legislative assistance, charges he denies.
Sloan said Democrats know a lot is at stake, particularly ahead of the 2008 presidential election. “They know that in their failure to act they will imperil their majority and there is nothing like an imperiled majority to make someone work harder.”
Craig Holman, who works on campaign finance reform legislation for Public Citizen, has been working with the Democrats to craft the new measures since the Abramoff scandal broke in 2005. His group has had a lot of input into the present reforms and he is satisfied that the House is on the right track.
“What Pelosi has come up with on day one is a very sweeping and highly promising set of rules changes,” he said. “She’s come up with some very strong ethics reforms. It’s not everything we want, but it’s pretty darn good.”