By MARGARET TALEV
January 19, 2006
Republicans, who control the House and Senate, announced broad plans Tuesday, saying details would be fleshed out over the next several weeks and voted on by March.
"We need to reform the rules so it's clear beyond a shadow of a doubt what is ethically acceptable," said House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill.
Democrats are scheduled to discuss their ideas Wednesday, but already Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has instructed his staff they may no longer accept any meals, gifts or travel from lobbyists.
"These changes are an effort to lead by example and bring others along," said a memo to Reid employees from his chief of staff. "We will walk the talk."
Leaders in both parties said Tuesday they are considering:
- Banning or at least greatly restricting privately funded travel. That could wipe out thousands of dollars worth of golf trips, island getaways and other junkets built around thin briefings on public policy issues. It also could require taxpayers to pick up a greater share of lawmakers' tabs on legitimate fact-finding trips.
- Banning lobbyist-paid meals altogether and tightening limits on gifts lawmakers can accept - perhaps $20 limits to allow tokens from civic groups, such as T-shirts or baseball caps.
- Taking away access to the chambers' floors and the congressional gym for former lawmakers who become lobbyists, and expanding from one year to two the waiting period before former lawmakers or staff members can become lobbyists.
- Increasing requirements for lobbyist disclosures. That might include more frequent and always computer-accessible filing of public records; more details on campaign contributions and client fees; and criminal penalties for false information.
- Eliminating congressional pensions for lawmakers convicted of felonies related to their official duties.
- Making less secretive the conference committee process by which complex and costly legislation is hashed out between the House and Senate.
While Republicans called for bipartisanship on Tuesday, Democrats signaled their belief that they are not as damaged as the majority party by the scandals that are leading to this reform push.
"The idea of Republicans reforming themselves is like asking John Gotti to clean up organized crime," Reid said in a press release.
Republicans appear more vulnerable than Democrats as a result of federal investigations into corruption.
Republican lobbyist and fund-raiser Jack Abramoff this month pleaded guilty to criminal charges related to his dealings with clients and lawmakers and agreed to cooperate with prosecutors looking at unnamed public officials. One Republican committee chairman has given up his post because of his ties to Abramoff.
Also, former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham, a Southern California Republican, pleaded guilty late last year in a bribery case and also may be cooperating with authorities. And House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, who was close to Abramoff and was indicted last year in a separate campaign finance case, has had to give up his post.
Campaign finance watchdogs welcome the opportunity for reform but said they can't endorse either party's plans until they see the fine print.
They also cautioned that new legislation could be meaningless unless lawmakers put the teeth back in their own ethics oversight.
"The enforcement arms of Congress have been missing in action for quite some time and it's unclear whether adding more rules for them not to enforce would do any good," said Massie Ritsch of the Center for Responsive Politics.
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