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We have rebuilt the Watchdog Blog to be smarter, stronger, and better looking.
The new blog covers all of Congress Watch's issues, has improved sydication options, and makes it easier to participate. Now it is the best place to get all of our updates and alerts. When ever Congress is practicing fishy ethics or the Bush Administration is impeding on our rights, this is where you can learn all about it and what steps to take to help stop it.
You can find it here: http://citizen.typepad.com/watchdog_blog/
There is a new film on the life and work of Ralph Nader -- An Unreasonable Man. I've seen it and can tell you that not only is it a compelling piece of history, it also is highly entertaining. As you probably know, this "Unreasonable Man" founded Public Citizen. While Nader is no longer involved in our operations, his work continues to inspire us.
But however inspirational, this film does not sugar-coat the Nader legacy - it's all there - Nader the hero and the spoiler, too.
The movie opens in cities around the country over the next couple months. To find out where you can catch it and to read more about it, go to the movie's website.
Even after the November elections when voters rebuked the GOP because of its scandal-ridden image and turned control of Congress over to the Democrats, the political scandals just keep on coming.
I attended the Senate Judiciary Committee hearings this morning on eight federal prosecutors who were fired en masse following the 2006 elections in December by Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and the Bush Administration. The Administration initially gave no reason for the firings. The story of political intrigue and corruption that my Public Citizen colleague Linda Andros wrote about on TomPaine.com last week continues to unfold.
The hearing noted that all but one received exemplary performance reviews. The common thread among many of these firings appears to be political repercussions for prosecuting Republicans for corruption, such as the infamous Duke Cunningham, or not prosecuting Democrats fast enough before the elections. Never mind that all but two of the prosecutors are Republicans; the other two are Independents.
Today the House picks back up with its work to end the “culture of corruption” in Washington. The House Judiciary’s subcommittee on the constitution, civil rights and civil liberties is discussing the bill of comprehensive reforms passed by the Senate, S.1, in a hearing today. This is an excellent place to begin. But will the panel and House leadership make their bill match their promises to be the most "ethical Congress" in history?
Public Citizen submitted a letter today to the subcommittee and the other members of Congress, urging them to take a tough stand in some key areas. First, they need to shine sunlight on the secret fundraising done by lobbyists. As noted in a piece by Congress Watch Director Laura MacCleery posted on Commondreams.org, the public has a right to know who is involved in the practice of “bundling” gobs of campaign cash at lavish fundraisers or through lobbyist networks. These bundled contributions add up to influence and access for lobbyist bundlers and their clients.
The House also must slow the revolving door between K Street and Capitol Hill. Lobbying restrictions are supposed to prevent government employees from stepping through the revolving door between the Capitol and “K Street” and selling out the public by exploiting the contacts they made while in office. Developments in recent years have shown these laws need MUCH improvement. Check out our post on this blog on Zell Miller’s turn through the revolving door.
The public also needs to know who is funding “Astroturf” lobbying. Business journalist Gary Weiss lays it all out in “Astroturfing Congress” in Forbes.
Perhaps the biggest opportunity for the new House to put their stamp on real reform is to create an independent monitoring and enforcement entity. The House can best the Senate by making sure all of these new laws and rules actually get enforced.
Let’s hope the members of the people’s House fulfill their promise. This is their moment to make Congress more accountable and inspire confidence in a government for and by the people.
Some of you may have heard that Kyle "Dusty" Foggo, former CIA Administrator, was indicted on February 13 for allegedly accepting bribes of meals and lavish vacations in exchange for doling out government contracts to California businessman and Republican campaign contributor Brent Wilkes.
In my testimony [pdf] before the House Government Reform Committee, also on February 13, I cited one of the major problems contributing to ethics abuses in the executive branch is the lack of ethics oversight. Responsibility for monitoring and enforcing ethics rules are left to some 6,000 individual ethics officers scattered among all the various executive agencies. Many of these ethics officers are poorly trained, if trained at all.
What is less known is that "Dusty" was one of those ethics officers.
Sad tales of executive branch ethics officers embroiled in scandals because of lack of oversight are not unique to Dusty. Sue Ellen Wooldrige, former assistant attorney general in charge of environmental protection, dated and now lives with J. Steven Griles, former deputy interior secretary. Griles is under federal investiagtion for receiving payments from Jack Abramoff's clients while they had business pending before Griles' own department. For part of that time, Wooldridge served as an excecutive branch ethics officer - advising Griles, no less.
If that's not enough, Wooldridge, Griles and a lobbyist for ConocoPhillips last year bought a $1 million vacation home together - just months before Wooldridge approved a consent decree giving ConocoPhillips more time to pay millions of dollars in fines and meet pollution cleanup rules for some of its refineries. You guessed it: the vacation home purchase by the three was also approved by another executive branch ethics officer.
Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?
Current revolving door rules prohibit ex-Congressmen from lobbying their old colleagues for one year after they leave office.
In September 2005, ex-Sen. Zell Miller (D-Ga.) was still within his one year probation period when became a registered lobbyist for the firm of McKenna, Long and Aldridge. According to disclosure forms, the firm received $60,000 from Lockheed Aeronautical Systems for him and others to lobby the House, Senate and Department of Defense.
If he, in fact, lobbied any Congressmen, he broke the law. But there is no way of knowing by looking at the disclosure forms, because they don’t say exactly what he did.
Lobbying restrictions are supposed to prevent government employees from stepping through the revolving door between the Capitol and “K Street” and selling out the public by exploiting the contacts they made while in office. Developments in recent years have shown they need MUCH improvement.
For example, by July 2005, 18 recently departed members of Congress had already accepted jobs at lobbying firms only six months into retirement. As noted by Public Citizen’s advocate Craig Holman in Roll Call today, our research shows that from 1998 through 2004, 43 percent of all retiring Members of Congress (those retiring for reasons other than death or conviction) spun through the revolving door to become lobbyists. Anecdotal evidence indicates very high salaries, sometimes reaching millions.
Last week, Public Citizen sent a letter [pdf] to Rep. Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Sen. Reid (D-Nev.) asking them to prevent the ethically-questionable activity of former Congressmen by enacting stricter disclosure requirements, a ban on all lobbying activities for a two-year cooling-off period, and the creation of an independent Office of Public Integrity to enforce the ethics rules.
Tell your member of Congress it’s time to prevent public officials from cashing in their public service and selling out the American people.
Today, Public Citizen advocate Craig Holman is testifying today before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform about ways to improve the Executive Branch Reform Act of 2007, a bill that is currently separate from the House lobbying reform legislation, but would slow the revolving door between the executive branch and industry.
You can read his testimony here: http://www.citizen.org/documents/craigtestimony.pdf
Suspect #1: Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) - He recently called for the abolishment of the presidential public funding system. His defense is that presidential candidates are choosing not to opt-in and that the public doesn't want to pay for it. McConnell says fewer people are checking a box on the federal tax forms to give $3 to program. Is it true that the public doesn't want to pay for this? A poll from last summer showed that 74% percent of the public supports publicly funded elections. They believe the cost of running for office is out of control and would rather it be paid for by the public than by special interests. Also, many states and municipalities have passed public funding or “Clean Elections.”
Suspect #2: The Presidential Candidates - Current candidates have all decided to fund their campaigns from private sources. Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) is asking her biggest supporters to fork over $1,000,000. At this rate, the 2008 presidential candidates could be expected to raise more than $500,000,000. With these exorbitant entrance fees for the presidential elections, it is no wonder the public funding system can’t keep up. No one in 1974 ever expected this kind of largess.
On a side note - it is worth mentioning that Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) has pledged that if he makes it to the general election, he will give back all his privately raised money and use the public system, if (and this is a BIG "if") his opponent does the same. His attempt to rescue the system is honorable, but it may end up a day late and a dollar short.
Suspect #3: The 109th Congress - The presidential public financing system has been in trouble for some time with both Bush and Kerry opting out in their primaries in 2004. Congress should have passed the bills by Reps. Shays and Meehan and by Sen. Feingold and McCain when it had the chance to update the presidential public funding system to make it a viable option for the 2008 slate of candidates. Luckily, bill was re-introduced last month and the 110th Congress can correct a past mistake.
What's the verdict? It may be too late for 2008, but the system can and must be salvaged.
Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) thinks the lobbying and ethics reforms passed in January are too strong. He was one of only two senators who voted against it. And if the House passes it, he claims he won't run for re-election in 2010:
"If this becomes law, I will guarantee you I won't run again....I will promise you, very few people in the future will run for Senate or Congress because every campaign will be about somebody making a complaint."
Sen. Coburn expressed concern that if a senator committed an "accidental mistake" it could cost up to $500,000 in legal fees. While we are not sure where this figure comes from, we are more curious what type of "accidental mistakes" Sen. Coburn is afraid he may make. Is he afraid he might be an accidental tourist in Scotland, perhaps?
Today, the Washington Post editorialized about Sen. Hillary Clinton's (D-N.Y.) one-million-dollar ask of supporters for her presidential bid. This dwarfs the $200,000 which Bush asked prospective Rangers to raise. Every four years, the bar for presidential fundraising shoots skywards - 2008 will surely take us to new stomach-turning heights.
The Federal Election Commission sets contribution limits at $2,300 per person for the primary, and allows another $2,300 per person for the general election. Big donors get around these limits by driving truck loads of cash through a loophole known as bundling. It allows people (especially those of the lobbyist variety) to keep funneling money to candidates long after reaching their personal limit. Examples of bundling include lobbyist who host fundraisers or corporate CEO who ask employees to make donations.
If running for president means asking supporters to gather this obscene amount of money, the public deserves to know who the bundlers are, whose money they are bundling and how much they bundle. Both Bush and Kerry chose to tell the public this information in the 2004 election, but such disclosure of bundling is entirely voluntary. It should be mandatory.
Reps. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) and Marty Meehan (D-Mass.) are co-sponsoring a bill (H.R. 633) that would require disclosure of bundling by lobbyists for all presidential and congressional candidates. The Senate already passed this measure in their lobbying and ethics reform bill (S. 1). You can take action here to ensure the House does the same.
The AP reports, Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) has fulfilled a unique campaign promise. At end of each day, his office posts a schedule of what he did and with whom he met.
Constituents can see how much time he is in the gym or who is joining him for lunch. For instance, at 2:15pm on January 30, 2007, he met with with Lyndsey Layton of the Washington Post for an interview.
Such transparency is a remarkable step forward for government accountability and helps put pressure on other senators to open up about how they spend their time. They are, after all, our public servants and unless they have something to hide, they ought to follow his lead.
Wondering why your senator doesn't do the same? Why not ask?
Click here to find your Senators' phone number, or call the Senate switchboard at (202) 224-3121.
Let us know what you hear by commenting to this blog below.