WASHINGTON – Democratic leaders in the House and Senate unveiled a comprehensive ethics and lobbying reform bill on Monday that cracks down on travel, gift-giving to members and bundling of campaign contributions and exposes earmarks dropped into spending bills "in the dead of night."
The legislation even earned praise from one senior Republican leadership aide.
"It's a massive bill with some pretty darn strong disclosure requirements. It's tough, tougher than we thought," the aide told FOX News.
But critics, who so far are few, came out swinging, specifically on the issue of earmark reform that guided the contentious 2006 midterm election cycle and earned a number of Democratic members a seat in Congress.
Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., who single-handedly stopped House and Senate negotiators from meeting to hammer out a compromise bill, immediately pronounced the earmark provisions a farce.
"There's a lot of smoke and mirrors in the new ethics bill, but upon a close look it's obvious that earmark transparency reforms have been eviscerated," he said. "Under this bill, the American people would be forced to trust Senator (Harry) Reid and Senator (Robert) Byrd — two of the biggest earmarkers in the Senate — to certify earmark disclosure. This bill allows the fox to guard the henhouse and makes a joke of ethics reform."
A top aide to Reid, the Senate majority leader, told reporters that the DeMint challenges are "categorically false."
The new bill, written by leadership and committee chairmen, including independent Democratic Sen. Joe Lieberman, who is chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, requires that Byrd, head of the Senate Appropriations Committee, and his House counterpart compile detailed lists of earmarks. "Earmarks" are defined as a measure "put in primarily at the request of a member."
The lists are to be available in a public and searchable database 48 hours before a vote on any spending bill.
DeMint and any other member would be allowed to challenge any earmark in the spending bill by introducing an amendment that would strip the offending provision from the bill. This, of course, would take 60 votes to succeed, and past efforts to do this — like the high-profile showdown between spending hawk Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., took on powerful fellow Republican Sen. Ted Stevens over the so-called "bridge to nowhere" — have roundly failed.
Earmarks slipped into spending bills after the measures have been hammered out in a Senate-House conference committee would be exposed by the parliamentarian following a challenge by any member. The parliamentarian would issue a ruling whether or not a measure is "new" to the report or "out of scope" from the report.
If the parliamentarian rules that the item is new or outside the scope of the bill, then supporters of the measure must rally 60 votes to keep the earmark in the bill.
"That's particularly tough," the senior Senate Republican leadership aide said.
The bill is expected to be on the House floor Tuesday and in the Senate likely on Thursday.
In addition to the impact on lawmakers, the 2008 presidential candidates will also be hit by the new measures. Campaign committees would be required to report on the bundled campaign contributions they receive, when contributions reach $15,000 in a six-month period and $30,000 in one year. These reports go to the Federal Election Commission, a provision sure to anger public watchdog groups like Public Citizen.
Public Citizen had wanted a public lobbying disclosure database that's easily searchable online. A Reid aide dismissed that criticism saying that all campaigns will have to have links to their FEC filings on their Web sites and that watchdog groups will be able to make the links easily enough.
Other measures in the new the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act of 2007 include:
— Revolving door extensions: Senators will not be permitted to lobby Congress until two years after leaving the Senate. House members will continue to comply with the current one-year limit.
— Corporate jet payments: Senators, Senate candidates and presidential candidates will have to pay charter rates for trips on private planes; the legislation also bars House candidates from accepting trips on private planes. Currently, House members are banned, this continues.
— K-Street Project watch: The bill prohibits members of Congress and their staff from attempting to influence employment decisions in exchange for political access.
— Congressional pensions: Lawmakers who have been charged with bribery, perjury or a similar crime will forfeit their congressional retirement benefits.
— Ban on privately funded trips: Lobbyists and their private-sector clients are barred from paying for multi-day travel trips by senators and their staffs.
— No kissing and lobbying: Spouses will be prohibited from lobbying any Senate office but spouses who were serving as registered lobbyists at least one year prior to the most recent election of their spouse to office or at least one year prior to their marriage to that member are exempted.
— Limits on other familial connections: No senators' immediate family members who are registered lobbyists can lobby their family members' office.