Senate Passes Ethics and Lobbying Reform – NOT!

Headlines everywhere read that the U.S. Senate passed an ethics and lobbyist reform bill yesterday. If only the action matched the headline.

While the Senate certainly did pass a bill that was hyped as a significant ethics and lobbyist reform package, in reality it fell wildly short of the six basic benchmarks set out by the reform community for effective legislation.

The bill did substantially increase disclosure of lobbyist activities, and the Senate earned a “B” from our ethics coalition on this particular benchmark. And they earned a “C” for slowing the revolving door between government and lobbying organizations, by extending the current ban on direct lobbying of Congress by former members from one to two years. Unfortunately, they failed to broaden the scope of the ban to include all lobbying activities, including organizing and directing a lobbying campaign.

The bill also banned gifts, including meals, from lobbyists, but the Senate only earned a “C” for this because the ban does not include organizations that employ the lobbyists, nor does it prevent lobbyists paying for lavish parties to “honor” members.

That’s about as good as it gets, though, as the report card heads dramatically south after that. The Senate bill did nothing to stop private interests from funding Congressional travel, and earned an “F” on that benchmark. It likewise did nothing to break the lobbyist-money-lawmaker nexus, and earned another “F” there. Disclosure is all well and good, but if special interests and lobbyists who have business in front of Congress are still allowed to contribute and/or help raise millions in campaign contributions for those same members of Congress, then the system of legalized bribery remains intact. (As Public Citizen President Joan Claybrook has noted in the past, you don’t reduce accidents on a busy road simply by keeping better track of them.)

And regarding better enforcement of ethics rules, an area where Congress has been utterly missing in action for the last scandal-filled year, the Senate once again took a pass, and earned an “F.” They rejected the proposal for an independent Office of Public Integrity, offered by Sens. McCain (R-Ariz.), Collins (R-Maine), Lieberman (D-Conn.) and Obama (D-Ill.) by an astoundingly lopsided vote of 67 to 30. Clearly, they still just don’t get it.

The ethics coalition report card gave the Senate an overall grade of “D,” but I suspect they were grading on a curve. The coalition’s statement began with a more accurate assessment: “The United States Senate failed the American people today.”

This struggle is far from over, though. It will come up next in the House, and there are also bills for public financing of elections and other areas of reform that will come up later. The Clean Up Washington campaign will also be running a candidate accountability effort this fall, and you will hear more on that shortly.

And as the Abramoff bribery scandal investigation continues to unfold, (remember, yesterday’s sentencing was just for his wire fraud guilty plea in Florida), new developments could force Congress to focus again on the issue. In a darkly optimistic assessment, Sen. McCain noted “The good news is I think there will be more indictments. We will revisit the issue.”

There you have it, friends: the good news is that more members of Congress will be charged with crimes! Stay tuned to this website for updates, and the next steps in our continuing effort to Clean Up Washington – ‘cause it sure still needs it!

-Gordon Clark