By ZACHARY COILE
San Francisco Chronicle
April 27, 2006
Watchdog groups say the measure is an election-year ploy to give the impression of addressing the scandals while failing to take major steps to increase enforcement of ethics rules or to distance lawmakers from those seeking to influence them.
"This is an attempt at one of the largest legislative scams that I've seen in 30 years of working on these issues," said Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, a group that has pushed for much tougher rules.
"Even the titles in this bill are scams. There is a section called 'Curbing Lobbyist Gifts' that doesn't curb lobbyist gifts. There is a section called 'Stopping the Revolving Door' that contains no provision to slow the revolving door. These are Orwellian efforts at trying to manipulate the public's understanding of this legislation."
The measure appears to be weaker than a Senate bill passed last month. House Republican leaders abandoned several provisions - including stricter limits on gifts from lobbyists and a permanent ban on privately funded travel - that House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., had supported this year.
GOP leaders said the bill, which focuses mostly on increasing disclosure requirements by lobbyists, is the best deal that could be reached given deep divisions among House members over the restrictions.
"A lot of people want to make perfect the enemy of the good," House Majority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, said. "We have a very good bill that is practical, that is workable, and that sheds light on areas where more light needs to be shed."
The bill would require lobbyists to file disclosure reports quarterly rather than twice a year as required now. The legislation also would give the House inspector general new authority to audit the reports for accuracy and to refer any abuses for prosecution.
The measure would require more disclosure of "earmarks" - spending items requested by individual lawmakers - including identifying the sponsor of all earmarks in appropriations bills. Supporters say the requirement will discourage some requests and will allow critics of earmarks to challenge pork-barrel spending projects.
But critics are upset at what has been removed from the bill. A proposed ban on gifts from lobbyists was dropped. The proposal to ban privately funded travel was replaced with a weaker provision to suspend privately funded travel through the end of this year. The bill also would allow members to continue to fly on corporate jets at heavily subsidized rates.
Last week House Rules Committee Chairman David Dreier, R-Calif., also removed several measures from the bill that would have required lobbyists to report when they host fundraisers for members, when they bundle contributions from donors, and when they throw lavish parties for lawmakers at the Democratic and Republican national conventions.
Lobbyists would be required to report their contributions to lawmakers' campaign committees and to any charities controlled by members.
But the bill would not force lobbyists to disclose their spending on grassroots lobbying activities. Corporations and interest groups spend millions of dollars on phone banks, advertising and hired organizers to get the public involved in their cause and to put pressure on lawmakers, but currently they do not have to report the expenses.
Unlike the Senate bill - which would make lawmakers and top executive-branch officials wait two years before they could lobby their former colleagues - the House bill would not change the waiting period from the current one year.
"This legislation is so weak it is embarrassing," said Chellie Pingree, president of Common Cause. Watchdog groups are urging lawmakers to vote against the bill when it comes to the floor Thursday unless it is significantly strengthened.
House Democrats strongly oppose the bill, saying it is a deliberate effort by the Republican majority to continue its close ties with Washington's lobbying community and its fundraising advantage.
"Democrats have always doubted the majority's commitment to reform, but this bill is weaker than any of us could have imagined," said Rep. Louise Slaughter, D-N.Y., the ranking member on the House Rules Committee.
Even some Republicans have raised questions about the bill. Rep. Chris Shays, R-Conn., plans to offer amendments along with Rep. Martin Meehan, D-Mass., to: create an Office of Public Integrity to enforce ethics rules; ban all gifts from lobbyists; increase disclosure of grassroots lobbying; and require lawmakers traveling on corporate jets to pay the full charter rate rather than simply the cost of a first-class ticket.
Scripps Howard News Service, http://www.shns.com
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