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In a lopsided 12-to-1 vote yesterday, the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee approved a lackluster lobbying reform package and sent it to the floor for final action next week. So whether we achieve truly meaningful lobbying reform now all rides on a looming floor amendment battle next week.
The committee hearing was extremely disheartening. Most members argued there simply is no Congressional ethics problem; that the public's perception of corruption on Capitol Hill is a myth. Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) had to the gall to mock the public's concerns by offering several ridiculous amendments, including one that would prohibit government buildings from being named after living senators. Coburn said he was planning to introduce the amendments in "jest," as a way of snickering at our calls for reform.
While the committee did approve a modest package of enhanced disclosure requirements for lobbyists, it struck out the most important provision of the proposal: establishing an independent ethics agency to monitor compliance and enforce the law. Currently, ethics and lobbying laws are enforced by members themselves -- a system designed to fail. Although Capitol Hill is swept up in the worst corruption scandals in three decades, the congressional ethics committees have done nothing to clean up the mess. Yet Sen. George Voinovich (R-Ohio), chair of the Senate ethics committee, summed up the attitude of the Homeland Security committee when he pronounced that his committee is "already doing those things."
Hopefully, the Senate as a whole is not as out-of-touch as the Homeland Security committee. Amendments are due to be introduced by Sens. John McCain, Barack Obama, Russell Feingold, Dianne Feinstein and others, variously calling for an independent enforcement agency, travel restrictions, a gift ban, and restrictions on fundraising by lobbyists. The floor battle is expected to begin in earnest on Tuesday, March 8th.
Maybe with the light of closer public scrutiny that comes with floor debate, the Senate will be shamed into doing what is right, and will pass genuine lobbying reform. It's also important that everyone call their Senators and make it known that we demand real reform. For information on how to call, go here.
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