Democrats divided on ethics overhaul

Sweeping changes may be a tough sell

November 19, 2006|By New York Times News Service

WASHINGTON -- After railing for months against congressional corruption under Republican rule, Democrats on Capitol Hill are divided on how far their proposed ethics overhaul should go.

Democratic leaders in the House and the Senate, mindful that voters in the midterm election cited corruption as a major concern, say they are moving quickly to complete a package of proposed changes for consideration as soon as the new Congress convenes in January.

Their initial proposals, laid out this year, would prohibit members from accepting meals, gifts or travel from lobbyists; require lobbyists to disclose all contacts with lawmakers; and bar former lawmakers-turned-lobbyists from entering the floor of the chambers or congressional gymnasiums.

None of those measures would overhaul campaign financing or create an independent ethics watchdog to enforce the rules. Nor would they significantly restrict earmarks, the pet projects lawmakers can insert anonymously into spending bills, which have figured in several recent corruption scandals and attracted criticism from members in both parties. The proposals would require disclosure of the sponsors of some earmarks, but not all.

Now, though, some Democrats say their election is a mandate for more sweeping changes. Many newly elected candidates, pointing to scandals involving several Republican lawmakers last year, made congressional ethics a major issue during the campaign. After winning the House on Nov. 7, Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California promised "the most honest, most open and most ethical Congress in history."

Sen. Barack Obama, an Illinois Democrat tapped by party leaders last year to spearhead ethics proposals, said he was pushing for changes with more teeth. "The dynamic is different now," Obama said Friday. "We control both chambers now, so it is difficult for us to have an excuse for not doing anything."

He is pushing to create an independent congressional ethics commission and advocates broader campaign finances changes as well. "We need to make sure that those of us who are elected are not dependent on a narrow spectrum of individuals to finance our campaigns," he said.

But sweeping changes may be a tough sell within the party. Rep. John P. Murtha of Pennsylvania was embarrassed by disclosures last week that he had dismissed the leadership proposals with a vulgarity at a private meeting. But Murtha is hardly the only Democrat who objects to broad changes. Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, who will oversee any proposal as the incoming chairwoman of the Rules Committee, said she was opposed to an independent congressional ethics watchdog. "If the law is clear and precise, members will follow it," she said in an interview. "As to whether we need to create a new federal bureaucracy to enforce the rules, I would hope not."

Other Democratic lawmakers argued that the real ethical problem was the Republicans, not the ethics rules, so the election alleviated the need for additional regulations. "There is an understanding on our side that the Republicans paid a price for a lot of the abuses that evolved," said Rep. Barney Frank of Massachusetts, referring to earmarks.

Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin, a senior member of the Appropriations Committee, said the scandals of the current Congress were "about the K Street project for the Republicans," referring to the party's initiative to put more Republicans in influential lobbying posts and build closer ties to them.

"That was incestuous from the beginning. We never had anything like that," he said of Democrats.

Democrats, of course, have also cultivated close ties to lobbyists, who play a major role in campaign fundraising for members of both parties. Indeed, ethical violations and house-cleaning efforts have been bipartisan activities over the years. Congress has seesawed between public calls for changes and the reluctance of incumbent lawmakers to cramp their campaign fundraising and political power.

The Republicans who took over the House in 1994 adopted some of the same policies the Democrats now propose, including a ban on gifts and travel, only to relax the rules later. In 2002, Sens. John McCain, an Arizona Republican, and Russ Feingold, a Wisconsin Democrat, pushed through a bipartisan law to restrict campaign donations and spending. The advocates of that bill are now pushing to close loopholes around so-called 527 groups.

And Republican leaders in the House and the Senate also vowed to pass what they called comprehensive ethics and earmark reform bills this year. Critics complained that lawmakers watered them down, and the two bills were never reconciled.

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