Ethics reform stalling in Congress

Bills crafted to end abuses revealed by the Abramoff scandal falter in both House and Senate.

Prospects for robust ethics reform in the 109th Congress are dimming, even as the criminal probes that prompted it are intensifying.

It's a political calculation that could cost lawmakers in this fall's elections, if they misread the degree to which voters care about bribery inside the Beltway.

As recently as January, lobby reform bills were top priorities in both the House and Senate, but now are encountering strong resistance. In the Senate, Republican leaders pulled the lobby bill off the floor over an unrelated amendment on the Dubai ports deal. In the House, GOP leaders are split over how aggressively to restrict lawmaker travel paid for by private entities.

"Some members are pulling the blanket over their heads and hoping the storm will pass. For others, there is also a genuine belief that if you just jump in a spasm of reaction, you could do some things detrimental to a good deliberative process," says Norman Ornstein, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

When the last big ethics scandal broke on Capitol Hill in 1992, voter anger helped retire or defeat 77 incumbents with overdrafts on the House bank - and gave insurgent Republicans momentum to win control of the House in 1994.

For many members, kiting checks had been a perk of the job, like cheap haircuts or the franking privilege that allows them to send mail for free through the postal system. To the public, it was a signal that lawmakers didn't play by the rules they required of everyone else.

The stakes in the current corruption scandal run even deeper. At issue is whether lawmakers can be bought: exchanging favors for cash, luxury golf outings, a skybox seat at sporting events, or free meals.

Last week, a federal judge in Florida delayed sentencing former lobbyist Jack Abramoff until June, to give federal prosecutors more time with him to investigate corruption on Capitol Hill.

Mr. Abramoff's plea agreement cited only one lawmaker, Rep. Bob Ney (R) of Ohio - and not by name - as involved in corruption. But others with links to Abramoff are also paying a political price. This week, Sen. Conrad Burns (R) of Montana drew a strong GOP primary challenger, who cited Mr. Burns's ties to Abramoff as a reason for getting into the race. It fuels speculation that Burns will soon announce his retirement.

In another high-profile case, a Texas appeals court heard arguments this week on whether to reinstate a conspiracy charge against Rep. Tom DeLay (R), who resigned as House majority leader after indictment last September on campaign money laundering charges. Mr. DeLay, too, has drawn the strongest reelection challenge of his career. And Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R) of California was recently sentenced to eight years in prison for bribery.

Despite the headlines, reform proposals face an uphill battle in both the House and Senate. In February, the House took a first step by revoking floor and gym privileges for former members who are lobbyists. A pending GOP leadership draft imposes stricter lobbyist disclosure requirements. It also requires committee reports to identify the sponsors of earmarks - a move that makes it harder for lawmakers like former Representative Cunningham to slip favors for, say, defense contractors into spending bills.

But GOP leaders are at odds over proposed limits on privately funded travel. While Speaker Dennis Hastert favored a ban on all privately funded travel, the new majority leader, Rep. John Boehner of Ohio, and many GOP backbenchers opposed it. A draft GOP proposal would suspend such travel until January 2007.

"A lot of members have reacted negatively to the discussion draft, because it's going to result in a hard-to-defend status quo for the next seven months," says Michael Franc, vice president for governmental affairs at the Heritage Foundation. "At the same time, it's going to ban privately funded travel hosted by educational entities - the kind of educationally oriented travel that the average voter thinks is appropriate."

On the Senate side, there's support for more frequent lobbyist disclosure - including, for the first time, electronic disclosure. But many are chafing at blanket travel restrictions.

"Seventy percent of our cities and villages can be accessed only by air - and that very infrequently. Why should taxpayers pay when there is a corporate plane going with an empty seat - as long as it's disclosed," says Sen. Ted Stevens (R) of Alaska.

The key to whatever is passed will be enforcement, public-interest groups say. "In the end, what is going to be judged is whether there is enforcement of the laws. The key is disclosure and transparency," says Larry Noble, outgoing director of the Center for Responsive Politics.

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