Today, Sunlight is posting an online poll asking the public if Congress is doing enough to address ethics and lobbying reform in the wake of recent scandals. We’ve posted one serious question and another one with a touch of humor: do you think it more likely that there would be a live sighting of Elvis before the current congressional leadership showed real leadership on the need for reform? (The poll is viewable here, and bloggers are encouraged to copy the source code and post it on their own sites.)
Why the cynical question? Here’s a brief guide to the issue.
Six months ago, lobbyist [sw: Jack Abramoff] admitted to corrupting government officials and pleaded guilty to three counts of conspiracy, fraud and tax evasion. Two very powerful Members of Congress have resigned their seats under a cloud of ethics charges, one of whom — [sw: Randy Cunningham] — is in jail, and one — [sw: Tom DeLay] — is under indictment in Texas.
Seven other Members — Senators [sw: Conrad Burns] and [sw: Bill Frist], and Congressmen [sw: Dennis Hastert], [sw: William Jefferson], [sw: Jerry Lewis], [sw: Alan Mollahan] and [sw: Bob Ney] — are currently under investigation by either the congressional ethics committees or law enforcement authorities (see this Congresspedia page for details). David Safavian, a top official at the General Services Administration, was found guilty by a jury on four counts of lying and obstruction of justice. And at least 11 government officials and former and current congressional staffers have either pled guilty or are under investigation for bribery, conspiracy, accepting bribes, corrupting elected officials, violations of lobbying rules, and numerous as yet unnamed reasons.
Six months ago, after Abramoff pled guilty, everyone in Congress was for reform:
"I intend to move forward aggressively and quickly to have the House of Representatives address lobbying reform. Over the past several months, I have spoken with many members about the need for such reforms. I have been encouraged by the breadth and boldness of their ideas. Now is the time for action." Dennis Hastert. 1/8/06.
"It’s a good time for us to look at more disclosure. I think you’ll see a congressional reaction to this totally unacceptable situation involving Jack Abramoff that’s both prompt and appropriate." — Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), 1/8/06.
"I believe that to regain the trust of the American people that this institution must go further than prosecuting the bad actors. We need to reform the rules so it’s clear beyond a shadow of a doubt what is ethically acceptable for members of Congress." — Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), 1/17/2006.
"First, we must ban privately sponsored travel in the House of Representatives. I know fact-finding trips are important. This body considers legislation that affects people that cannot always travel to Washington to petition their government. Private travel has been abused by some, and I believe we need to put an end to it. Second, I think we need to tighten even further the gift rules. A Member of Congress should be able to accept a ball cap or a t-shirt from the proud students at a local middle school, but he or she doesn’t need to be taken to lunch or dinner by a lobbyist. Recent months have shown that we need a more transparent system. Our plan dramatically increases the reporting of lobbyist activities." — Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), 1/17/06.
"Yesterday we marked the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King. I thought about one of his letters from a Birmingham jail, in which he wrote that, We should always be careful about the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. And that’s why I believe we’re in a position today where we have an opportunity to be bold and strong, and that’s why this is a terrific opportunity for us. … The speaker has just talked about the issue of a ban on privately funded travel. I believe that it’s also very important for us to proceed with a significantly stronger gift ban, which would prevent members and staff from personally benefiting from gifts from lobbyists. One of the things that we’re considering is the prospect of going to the provisions that have been set forth by the White House, which have existed under Democratic and Republican administrations. … We also are proposing that we increase from one year to two years the post-employment lobbying ban that exists for members and senior staff." — David Dreier (R-Calif.), 1/17/06
That was then.
Now, six months later, the Washington Post reports that these calls for change are "a fading concern." The Post recounts, "Lawmakers considered a range of provisions, including a ban on privately funded junkets, a prohibition against taking gifts and an end to steeply discounted travel by private jet. Instead, they decided to strengthen and double the number of lobbyists’ public disclosure reports, and they discarded — or will probably discard — almost everything else." Powerful members of both chambers objected strongly to a ban on privately financed travel, and they were joined by major lobby groups. An independent office of public integrity was shot down in committee.
Currently there are two versions of lobbying and ethics reform. One is S. 2349, the Lobbying Transparency and Accountability Act of 2006; the other is HR 4975, the Lobbying Accountability and Transparency Act of 2006. Both bills have cleared their respective houses. The vote on HR 4975 fell on mostly partisan lines 217-213. Meanwhile, S. 2349 passed by a margin of 90-8 with the eight votes coming mostly from those who wanted tougher legislation. Both bills are in conference, however only the Senate has named conferees. Senate Conferees: Daniel Inouye (D-HI), Chris Dodd (D-CT), Trent Lott (R-MS), Mitch McConnell (R-KY), Ted Stevens (R-AK)
The House has yet to name conferees. The most current statement from the House and the Senate on reform came on June 9th from Sen. Bill Frist and Speaker Dennis Hastert: "Today, we asked lobbying reform conferees to complete their final package before the Fourth of July recess. Lobbying and ethics reform remains an important priority for Congress. We are confident that the conferees will work hard and deliver a conference report that will build trust with the American people by making our government more transparent and accountable." This Washington Post story gives the most recent account of the legislation.
Despite a series of scandals showing serious abuses of power, including the use of privately financed travel, gifts to legislators and staff by lobbyists, and the secretive earmarking of taxpayer dollars to the benefit of private interests, often with close ties to legislators and lobbyists, we think this Congress has done nothing to restore the trust of the public in the integrity of its work.
It’s time to find out what you think.