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Senate Has Failed to Deliver Effective Lobbying and Ethics Reform

Campaign  Legal  Center● Common Cause ● Democracy 21 

League of Women Voters ● Public Citizen ● U.S. PIRG 

March 29, 2006

Senate Has Failed to Deliver Effective Lobbying and Ethics Reform

The United States Senate failed the American people today.

The Senate failed to pass effective lobbying and ethics reform legislation, and failed to address the biggest lobbying and ethics problems facing the Senate.

As Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff was being sentenced today in one of the criminal cases brought against him, a majority of Senators were choosing to ignore deep public concerns about the corruption and lobbying scandals in Washington that Abramoff symbolizes.

Our organizations issued six benchmarks for lobbying and ethics reform on January 23, 2006. Enclosed with this statement is our report card on the Senate’s performance on these six benchmarks. It is not a report card that any child would like to take home to their parents.

A majority of Senators, for example, voted against the establishment of an Office of Public Integrity for the Senate. The Office was proposed to address the biggest ethics problem facing the institution, the absence of a publicly credible and publicly acceptable system for enforcing the Senate ethics rules.

The defense of the current system by Senate Ethics Committee Chairman George Voinovich (R-OH) came down to the public equivalent of ”Trust us. We’re doing a good job. We just can’t tell you what we are doing.”

That is not good enough for the American people.

Our organizations will continue to work for the establishment of an independent, impartial Office of Public Integrity in the Senate to help ensure that the Senate ethics rules are enforced.

The Senate lobbying bill also fails to provide any new restrictions on privately-funded travel for Members. The bill also fails to stop Members from treating corporate planes as their own private air force. The bill also fails to stop lobbyists from financing lavish parties for Members. These are all areas of great abuse that will now continue unabated.

The Senate lobbying bill also fails to require disclosure of numerous ways in which lobbyists provide financial help for Members, such as soliciting and bundling campaign contributions for Members, paying for Members’ parties, making contributions to foundations and other entities controlled by Members and paying for Members’ events, including conferences and retreats.

We recognize that the legislation does make improvements in a number of areas, including a ban of gifts from lobbyists, quarterly reports by lobbyists that are searchable on the Internet, disclosure for the first time of spending on grassroots lobbying activities, and disclosure for the first time of fundraisers held by lobbyists for Members and other federal candidates.

These positive features of the legislation, however, do not compensate for the greater failures of the Senate to address its most important lobbying and ethics problems.

We greatly appreciate the outstanding leadership provided for strong and effective lobbying and ethics reforms during this effort by Senators Susan Collins (R-ME) and Joe Lieberman (D-CT), the Chairman and Ranking Democrat on the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, and by Senators Barack Obama (D-IL), John McCain (R-AZ) and Russell Feingold (D-WI).

We very much regret that a majority of Senators did not support their efforts; if they had we would be looking at a very different result.

Instead the Senate has chosen to reject essential lobbying and ethics reforms.

The American people will not be fooled.

Senate Scorecard on Six Benchmarks for Lobbying and Ethics Reforms Issued By Reform Groups on January 23, 2006

1.    Break the nexus between lobbyists, money and lawmakers.

Cap contributions from lobbyists and lobbying firm PACs to federal candidates at $200 per election and to national parties and leadership PACs at $500 per election cycle.

Prohibit lobbyists and lobbying firms from soliciting, arranging or delivering contributions and from serving as officials on candidate campaign committees and leadership PACs.

Prohibit lobbyists, lobbying firms and lobbying organizations from paying or arranging payments for events “honoring” members of Congress and political parties, such as parties at national conventions, and from contributing or arranging contributions to entities established or controlled by members of Congress, such as foundations.

The Senate bill does nothing to break the lobbyist-money- lawmaker nexus. It does not impose any new limits on campaign contributions from lobbyists or fundraising done by lobbyists for Members, or any new limits on the various ways lobbyists or their employers provide financial benefits to Members, such as paying for parties to “honor” Members, or for Members’ retreats, conferences and other events. GRADE: F

2. Prevent private interests from financing trips and from subsidizing travel for members of Congress and staff, and executive branch officials and federal judges.

Corporations and others should be prohibited from making privately-owned planes available for Members to travel at the cost of a first class air ticket rather than the cost of a chartered plane.

The Senate bill does nothing on this.   It adds no new restrictions on privately-funded trips for Members and other federal officials and does not require Members to pay fair market value, or charter rates, for the use of corporate planes.  GRADE: F

3.   Ban gifts to members of Congress and staff.

    The gift ban should close the existing loophole in the gift rules that allow lobbyists and others to pay for parties held to “honor” or “recognize” specific Members, such as the lavish parties held at the national party conventions. 

The Senate bill bans gifts from lobbyists, including meals, but the ban does not apply to the organizations that employ the lobbyists and does not prevent lobbyists from paying for lavish parties to “honor” Members.   GRADE: C

4.   Oversee and enforce ethics rules and lobbying laws through an independent congressional Office of Public Integrity and increase penalties for violations.

Establish an independent Office of Public Integrity in Congress and provide sufficient resources for the Office to effectively carry out its responsibilities.

The proposal to establish an Office of Public Integrity sponsored by Senators Collins, Lieberman, Obama and McCain was defeated on the Senate floor.   The legislation does nothing to improve enforcement of congressional ethics rules.   GRADE: F

5.    Slow the revolving door.

Prohibit members of Congress and senior executive branch officials from making lobbying contacts or conducting lobbying activities for compensation in either branch for two years after leaving their positions.

Prohibit senior congressional staff from making lobbying contacts for compensation with their former offices or committees for two years after leaving their positions.

The bill extends the current revolving door ban on direct lobbying of Congress from one to two years, but does not broaden the scope of the ban for Members to include “lobbying activities” – organizing and directing a lobbying campaign.   GRADE: C

6.    Place sunshine on lobbying activities and financial disclosure reports.

Require lobbying reports and Members’ financial disclosure reports to be filed in an electronic format and made fully searchable on the Internet; lobbying reports to be filed on a quarterly basis; lobbyists and lobbying firms to disclose grassroots lobbying activities; lobbyists to file a list of the Members’ offices and congressional committees they lobbied during the quarter; and reports to be filed disclosing the financial backers of stealth lobbying coalitions.

The bill improves disclosure by requiring quarterly reporting by lobbyists, and requiring the creation of an electronic database on the Internet.   The bill requires, for the first time, disclosure of grassroots lobbying requirements and improves disclosure by stealth lobbying coalitions.  The bill requires lobbyists to disclose on an annual basis the contributions they make to federal candidates, leadership PACs and political parties, and to disclose the fundraising events they hold for Members. The bill does not require disclosure, however, of numerous other ways that lobbyists provide financial benefits to Members, such as paying for parties to “honor” Members, or contributions to foundations or other entities controlled by Members and does not include any requirement to list the offices contacted by a lobbyist.  GRADE: B