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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.
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.
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?
(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 email@example.com.
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.
In case you still thought the Ethics Committee does a good job of policing the House, they just released their report on Foley-gate. It states that there were no ethics violations; only evidence of negligence on behalf of the Republican leadership to protect the pages.
Mark Foley (R-Fla) resigned in September when his inappropriate emails and instant messages to a former page were made public. The report concluded that Speaker Dennis Hastert's (R-Ill.) office learned of his behavior at least a year earlier.
This report demonstrates just what a failure the Ethics Committee is in enforcing house rules.
Download the report here (pdf.).