Friday, June 30, 2006

Report: With Scandals Aplenty, Ethics Bills Waiting

What does ethics reform mean to the Republican Congress? Not much, apparently.

After acting like that ethics reform was their top concern earlier this year, they have no dropped the issue in order to focus on their usual divisive issues.

The following report does a good job of explaining just how much the Republicans have failed our nation when it comes to ethics:

Which is the more watered down? A free whiskey from a Washington lobbyist or the legislation to prevent lobbyists from enticing lawmakers into sticky ethics situations?

You know the answer, of course.

Red-faced and reeling last winter over growing scandals, Congress vowed to crack down on breaches of ethics.

But now? “The great disappearing act,” said Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona.

After Jack Abramoff, once armpit-close to Republican leaders, pleaded guilty to influence peddling, both chambers came up with measures to tighten some disclosure rules on lobbyists, requiring that they file reports on their Capitol Hill contacts quarterly instead of twice yearly.

Yet the legislation that awaits a Senate-House conference committee would still allow members to fly on corporate jets, take trips paid for by private groups and leave Congress for well-heeled jobs with industries and groups that they helped get government contracts and other favors.

“This is light years away from where the country wanted Congress to go,” said Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon. “If ever there was a time after the Abramoff scandals to make fundamental changes, this would be it.”

Some more questions and answers about the reforms:

Q: Which chamber has seen a member given jail time, a member with $90,000 hidden in his freezer, a leader step down because of indictments, a member waiting for indictment, and a member leave the ethics committee because of a growing smell around his own dealings?

The House.

Q: So which chamber has the weakest lobbying reform bill?

The House, although it’s not leagues under the Senate’s.

“There is no question that (the House) bill, no matter what people say about it, represents progress,” Republican Rep. David Dreier of California, who managed the legislation, said in a House floor debate last month. It’s not clear when a House-Senate conference version will finally emerge for a vote.

The House bill would permit gifts from lobbyists at the current limit of $50 per item and $100 per year. The Senate bill, however, would ban lobbyists from giving gifts, whether meals or golf clubs –– although their clients still could.

The Senate bill would extend to two years the hiatus against senators-turned-lobbyists starting to work on former colleagues. The House would stick with the current one-year ban.

“We missed an opportunity,” said Republican Rep. Kenny Hulshof of Missouri. “The bill was inadequate. We need to continue to push forward, not just because of what might happen between now and the election, but because it’s the right thing to do. We should hold ourselves to a higher standard.”

Q: Would the air force of corporate jets giving rides to wandering congressmen be grounded?

Neither bill changes the legal availability of these rides. The congressman still just has to come up with the price of a first-class ticket rather than the actual cost. It’s a major perk enjoyed even by reformers, such as McCain.

“Too many members are addicted to the financial perks and benefits they receive from lobbyists and other influence seekers and have been unwilling to give them up to address corruption,” said Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, a nonpartisan congressional watchdog group.

Q: How many lobbyists will be around to carry the bags?

None, if the Senate version wins. They’re banned from trips, although not their clients. The House would make them fly on another plane.

Lawmakers also can take trips paid for by private groups, just not lobbyists.

Back in January House Speaker Dennis Hastert of Illinois called for a ban on privately sponsored travel.

He may have been reading the polls. A Washington Post-ABC News survey a few days after Abramoff’s guilty plea found that nearly 60 percent of the public said the case reflected “widespread corruption” in the capital.

But Hastert was overridden by party members who complained that Congress was overreacting. The new majority leader, John Boehner of Ohio, was key among them.

Questions of violating lobbyists’ constitutional rights to petition Congress came up and there have been plenty of distractions, from immigration to the war.

Q: What might be considered real progress in the measures?

Both shine more light on the practice of “earmarks,” which allows lawmakers to set aside money for certain projects without having to identify themselves.

Q: What’s the scorecard say on gimmes from Abramoff’s now-infamous St. Andrews golf trips?

Four sunk, a couple tottering on the brink and one who says he didn’t know who was paying the green fees.

•Abramoff copped his plea.

•David H. Safavian, former top federal procurement official, was convicted of lying and obstruction of justice.

•Tony Rudy, former Majority Leader Tom DeLay’s former deputy chief of staff, pleaded guilty to a corruption count.

•Neil G. Volz, former chief of staff to Rep. Bob Ney, has confessed to conspiring with Abramoff to corrupt public officials, including Ney.

•Ed Buckham, DeLay’s chief of staff turned lobbyist, is under investigation.

•Ney, Ohio Republican, is prominently mentioned in indictments of smaller fish, but remains uncharged and insistent that he was tricked by Abramoff.

•DeLay, who resigned from the House to go home to Texas and deal with campaign money-laundering charges, says he did nothing wrong with his free golf outing.

“There are at least half a dozen possible criminal indictments still hanging out,” said Mike Surrusco, who directs ethics campaigns for Common Cause, a nonpartisan political watchdog group. “I don’t know that these guys have really braced themselves for that. The approval ratings for Congress are already in the tank. What’s going to happen when voters go to the polls? They may pay the price even if they personally haven’t done anything.”

What the ethics reform bills miss

•Restrictions on privately funded trips, although the House may set voluntary trip-approval guidelines.

•Revealing or limiting the costs of galas held for lawmakers, which can run into the hundreds of thousands at conventions, is not in the House bill, but is in the Senate’s.

•Flights on jets owned by corporations at the equivalent of a first-class ticket, rather than the actual cost.

•Disclosing who’s giving large gifts to charitable causes or entities linked to lawmakers. The Senate would disclose; the House would not.

•Neither requires members or aides to disclose contacts made by lobbyists.

•No independent authority to monitor and enforce ethics and lobbying rules.

•The House bill requires that a member convicted of a felony forfeit the congressional pension. The Senate bill does not.

•The Senate bill creates a database of lobbying by foreign governments. The House bill does not.

It simply is a disgrace to have our government encompassed in corruption like this. John Boehner should realize it was his party that spawned the mess and the least they can do is help fix the problem.

But once again, that will take political will, something that is lacking in his party and in his heart.