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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.
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.
Tonight we’ll be listening closely to the President’s State of the Union address. This year we hope he levels with the American people. Unfortunately, as we’ve learned in previous State of the Union addresses, this president’s assertions are not always "reality-based."
As an example from his 2006 address, we were told that lawsuits were driving doctors out of practice - causing a shortage of ob-gyns in 1,500 counties. This was not true and a blatant attempt to urge the Congress to enact medical liability reform.
Today, Public Citizen released an analysis [pdf] of this claim that shows the real facts.
So, will we hear the truth from the President tonight?
What we’d like to hear is an honest assessment and a solid plan for moving our nation out of an era of corruption and lies and into a future of more transparency and integrity in our government. However, we won't hold our breath.
So, we’re asking you.
Post your own "address" on the true State of the Union in comments to this blog and we’ll continue to work to get Congress and the President to listen to you, the people.
(Listen to my podcast: click here [mp3])
Last night the Senate brought back its lobbying and ethics reform bill from the grave, finally approving a sweeping measure that contains more than I had expected. It was looking grim yesterday, as a partisan fight had broken out the day before which threatened to kill the whole bill.
The stand-off was over a dispute between Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) on whether the Senate would take a vote on a "line-item" veto proposal desired by President Bush. Our activists and other concerned citizens then flooded the Capitol with calls demanding an immediate vote on real lobbying and ethics reform.
Throughout the afternoon and into the evening, the Senate leaders negotiated an agreement that eventually brought the bill back to life. McConnell got a promise on a later vote on a watered-down “line-item” veto bill – and we got a series of strengthening amendments. The bill:
1. Bans gifts from lobbyists and organizations the hire lobbyists (no more gifts to lawmakers, folks).
2. Prohibits organizations that employ lobbyists from arranging or paying for congressional travel, with the following exceptions:
* One day trips
* Travel paid for by 501(c)(3), subject to pre-approval by the ethics committee
* Travel paid for by universities.
3. Requires Members to pay full charter rates for flying on private corporate jets, for officially connected and campaign trips.
4. Discloses all fundraising activity, including bundling, by lobbyists.
5. Prohibits lobbyists from hosting events that "honor" members of Congress, even at party conventions.
6. Extends revolving door prohibition from one year to two – and include "lobbying activity" in that two-year cooling off period.
7. Prohibits spouses of Members of Congress from lobbying, unless they were registered lobbyists prior to the Member's election or they were a lobbyist prior to one year of marrying the Member.
8. Members cannot request earmarks that benefit the Member's immediate family.
9. Extensive earmark disclosure, for federal agencies as well as earmarks to private parties.
10. Earmarks must be posted on the Members' Web page.
11. Disclosure of stealth coalition lobbying.
12. Point of order removal for any earmarks not previously agreed to in the conference committee.
13. And, of course, quarterly, electronic reporting of lobbying activity.
Though there were two notable omissions, we expect to be able to get those provisions into the House bill (and thus in the final bill):
1. Astroturf lobbying, by a vote of 43-55. But we will take this battle to the People's House (and win there).
2. The Office of Public Integrity (or OPI) lost by an even bigger margin than last time, 27-41. But the Senate agreed to further deliberate OPI in the Homeland Security committee to coincide with work that will be done by the House study committee.
Final bill passage: 96-2.
Overall, a great victory! The votes show that Congress does listen to voters and can produce a very good bill.
Now – we work to win the rest.
The Senate's ethics and lobbying reform bill, S. 1 [pdf], will be debated on the floor this week and through the end of next week. Contained in the bill is a strong provision that would shine new light on grassroots lobbying by large (and often for-profit) lobbying firms.
Frightened for their bottom line, and protective of the premium they earn for stealth efforts that conceal the real interests of industry, a small coalition of right-wing groups is trumping up a controversy over this simple new disclosure provision. We responded to their concerns in a letter sent yesterday [pdf].
We also released a report, Organizing Astroturf [pdf], which listed 12 examples of bogus grassroots efforts by phony industry-backed groups and the important public issues involved, which included everything from asbestos rules to the environment and the estate tax.
The provision in the Senate bill is very narrowly drawn. It requires disclosure only when an entity spends a large amount of money – more than $25,000 over a three-month period – to rally the public to urge Congress to act on a pending bill. The measure does not in any way restrict lobbying activities by individuals or groups.
Citizens and lawmakers deserve to know who is influencing public policy. Please take a minute to call your Senators and let them know you agree with us that sunlight is the best disinfectant for politics.
Under the leadership of Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), the House in a single day approved some of the most critical new ethics rules changes seen in a decade. Lobbyists, and organizations that employ them, are now banned from giving gifts of any value to members of Congress and their staff; prohibited from arranging or paying for congressional travel, except for one-day trips to make a speech or attend a conference; and barred from flying on private corporate jets for campaign purposes, personal trips and travel connected to official duties. Further, the growing wave of earmarks in appropriations and tax bills must be identified with a specific congressional sponsor.
Nearly all of these reforms were rebuked by the House and the Senate last year. Following the November elections, the same reforms were adopted by a near-unanimous vote of 430-to-1, with Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.) as the lone dissenting vote.
Next on the reform agenda for Pelosi is her legislative package, which regulates the conduct of persons outside the House (i.e., lobbyists and former members). This package is expected to contain an equally impressive set of legislative reforms, such as slowing the revolving door and enhancing disclosure of fundraising activity by lobbyists and Astroturf lobbying.
Today, Public Citizen sent a response to the so-called "Free Speech" Coalition, which complained in a letter to us last week that the Pelosi bill will require more disclosure of lobbying campaigns.
These complaints were also taken up in a recent issue of the right-wing Washington Examiner, which comically aggrandized our role in the legislative effort by labeling the bill as "Pelosi-Claybrook." While we are supportive and involved in the process, our President, Joan Claybrook, has never been elected as a member of Congress, and therefore cannot be a co-sponsor of the bill.
Far more importantly, the coalition is upset by the proposal because they would prefer to keep operating in the dark. The bill requires that sponsors of large and expensive grassroots lobbying campaigns disclose where the money came from and how it was spent. We've seen far too often that wealthy special interests create front groups and run misleading TV ad campaigns (remember Harry and Louise?).
This bill would change all that, without infringing one bit on freedom of speech. Disclosure of the amount and source of money spent to sway the public in ad blitzes on pending legislation is the very essence of what citizens need to act in an informed way.
And it buttresses the First Amendment for the public to know the identity of a speaker in the marketplace of ideas, enabling citizens to draw their own conclusions about the motives and self-interest of the speaker. Instead, this coalition wants to hide in the shadows by concealing their shilling for corporate interests and playing high-stakes political games to deceive voters.
We invite everyone to write the Examiner to correct the record on the proposal and make the case that the Pelosi measure to require reporting of for-profit grassroots lobbying is well-reasoned and long overdue. Send your letters to firstname.lastname@example.org.
The 109th Republican leadership’s failure to enact meaningful lobbying and ethics reform played a decisive role in the 2006 general elections. Despite pronunciations by some during the lobbying reform debate that voters would not care about the plague of corruption scandals, both exit polls and the election results showed corruption was the top concern. The DCCC, in a post-election memo, observed the direct effects of corruption was the addition of 8 additional Democratic seats in districts tarred by the scandals.
The new Democratic leadership – House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid – realize the centrality of lobbying and ethics reform to voters, and both pledged to introduce reform legislation as their first items of business in the 110th Congress.
Understanding the significance of this colossal sea change requires a quick review of recent events. Two years ago, there was no interest in addressing in lobbying and ethics abuses except from the most stalwart reformers like Rep. Marty Meehan and Sen. Russell Feingold. And their legislative proposals went nowhere, never getting a hearing.
Then Jack Abramoff hit the Capitol.
St. Thomas, U.S.V.I., is a beautiful Caribbean island adjacent to Puerto Rico. Its white beaches and cool tropical breezes are magnets for tourists, including Rep. Charles Rangel (D-NY). But unlike most visitors, Rangel had the cost of his airfare and accommodations covered by the New York Carib News when he visited St. Thomas in November 2005. The trip was officially intended to allow Rangel to attend talks about U.S.-Caribbean business issues. Rangel’s acceptance of the trip was not illegal, but he failed to report the trip within the required 30-day-period.
Apparently, such tardy reporting is a problem for quite a few in Congress. In 2005, 28 Republicans and 25 Democrats failed to properly report privately funded trips, according to PoliticalMoneyLine.
Are these Members hiding something or are they just being lazy? Either way, the days of laissez faire travel enforcement may be drawing to a close. The reform proposal that Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) plans to introduce in January (summary.pdf) would ban lobbyists from privately funded trips and require the disclosure of privately funded trips’ itineraries, purposes and passenger lists. The poor compliance with the current travel rules presents just one more point in favor of establishing an independent Office of Public Integrity, for which Public Citizen has long advocated. Pelosi has expressed sympathy for the idea, but is more likely to study the issue than press for the new agency at once.
You can tell her yourself why the choice is a no-brainer here.