Democrats Split on How Far to Go With Ethics Law


Richard Moore

Original source URL:

November 19, 2006

Democrats Split on How Far to Go With Ethics Law

WASHINGTON, Nov. 18 ‹ 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 finalize a package of changes for consideration as soon as the new 
Congress convenes in January.

Their initial proposals, laid out earlier 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 the 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 anonymously insert 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.

Some Democrats say their election is a mandate for more sweeping changes, and 
many newly elected candidates ‹ citing scandals involving several Republican 
lawmakers last year ‹ made Congressional ethics a major issue during the 
campaign. After winning the House on election night, Representative Nancy 
Pelosi, the House Democratic leader, promised ³the most honest, most open and 
most ethical Congress in history.²

Senator Barack Obama, an Illinois Democrat tapped by party leaders last year to 
spearhead ethics proposals, said he was pushing for changes with more teeth. 
³The dynamic is different now,² Mr. Obama said Friday. ³We control both chambers
now, so it is difficult for us to have an excuse for not doing anything.²

He is pushing to create an independent Congressional ethics commission and 
advocates broader campaign-finance changes as well. ³We need to make sure that 
those of us who are elected are not dependent on a narrow spectrum of 
individuals to finance our campaigns,² he said.

Sweeping change, however, may be a tough sell within the party. Representative 
John P. Murtha, Democrat of Pennsylvania, was embarrassed by disclosures last 
week that he had dismissed the leadership proposals with a vulgarity at a 
private meeting. But Mr. Murtha is hardly the only Democrat who objects to broad

Senator Dianne Feinstein, the California Democrat who will oversee any proposal 
as the incoming chairwoman of the Rules Committee, for example, said she was 
opposed to an independent Congressional ethics watchdog. ³If the law is clear 
and precise, members will follow it,² she said in an interview. ³As to whether 
we need to create a new federal bureaucracy to enforce the rules, I would hope 

Other Democratic lawmakers argued that the real ethical problem was the 
Republicans, not the current ethics rules, and that the election had alleviated 
the need for additional regulations. ³There is an understanding on our side that
the Republicans paid a price for a lot of the abuses that evolved,² said 
Representative Barney Frank, Democrat of Massachusetts, alluding to earmarks. 
Senator Tom Harkin, an Iowa Democrat and a senior member of the Appropriations 
Committee, said the scandals of the current Congress were ³about the K Street 
Project for the Republicans,² referring to the party¹s initiative to put more 
Republicans in influential lobbying posts and build closer ties to them.

³That was incestuous from the beginning. We never had anything like that,² Mr. 
Harkin said of Democrats. ³That is what soured the whole thing.²

Democrats, of course, have also cultivated close ties to lobbyists, who play a 
major role in campaign fund-raising for members of both parties. Indeed, ethical
violations and house-cleaning efforts have both been bipartisan activities over 
the years. Congress has seesawed between public calls for changes and a 
reluctance to cramp incumbents¹ campaign fund-raising 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, Senators John McCain, Republican of Arizona, and
Russell D. Feingold, Democrat of Wisconsin, 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 earlier this year. Critics 
complained that lawmakers had watered them down, and the two bills were never 
reconciled. (The Democratic proposals would also require a combination of 
internal House and Senate rules changes and legislation in both chambers.)

The current Congress, however, has set a high watermark for corruption scandals.
One Republican, Representative Randy Cunningham of California, is in jail and 
another, Representative Bob Ney of Ohio, is on the way. The former House 
majority leader, Tom DeLay, resigned under indictment, and the payoff scandal 
surrounding the lobbyist Jack Abramoff may ensnare others as well. On the 
Democratic side, Representative William J. Jefferson of Louisiana faces bribery 

Advocates of an overhaul believe the reaction to the Congressional 
embarrassments make the Democratic takeover of Capitol Hill their best chance 
for significant change since the aftermath of Watergate, when Congress created 
the presidential campaign finance system. But they consider the Democratic 
proposals just the beginning of a cleanup.

³A ban on gifts, meals, corporate jet flights ‹ a lot of that resonates with the
public because people think there is just a lot of free giveaways in Congress,² 
said Chellie Pingree, president of the ethics advocacy group Common Cause. ³A 
lot of this is sort of skirting the issue of how campaign funds are shaping the 
legislative process.²

Ms. Pingree noted that the scandals of the last Congress arose from actions that
were illegal but went undetected for years because of lack of oversight. ³Are 
they going to enforce the rules?² she asked.

Spurred by the election results, several Democrats in addition to Mr. Obama are 
pushing bigger changes. Senator Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, the No. 2 
Democrat in the Senate, is preparing a proposal for some form of public 
financing or free broadcast time for Congressional candidates to reduce their 
dependence on campaign donors. Common Cause says that 21 newly elected 
Democrats, more than half the class, and 69 incumbents have signed a pledge 
endorsing the idea.

That idea, however, has never gained much traction in Congress, in part because 
lawmakers balk at the notion of helping challengers who want their jobs. ³You 
use taxpayer dollars to finance people who may not only be fringe candidates but
‹ I was going to use the term Œnut¹‹ may be mentally incompetent,² Ms. Feinstein

Senator Harry Reid, the Democratic leader, said last week that he hoped to add 
new restrictions on 527 groups, which operate largely outside the fund-raising 
and spending rules governing candidates or party committees. Many Democrats 
oppose that idea because many of the groups have supported Democrats.

Mr. McCain, who is exploring a presidential bid, is also pushing to extend the 
campaign finance rules to 527 groups. And he and some conservative Republicans 
are stepping up calls to restrict earmarks. But both Republican and Democratic 
members of the appropriations committees, which dole out earmarks, oppose any 
intrusions on their power.

The Democratic proposals seek more ³transparency² in earmarks. But the House 
proposal would apply only to ³district-oriented earmarks,² that is, projects 
obtained for constituents. Lawmakers already boast of sponsoring such items. The
earmarks involved in corruption cases are often directed to contractors or 
campaign contributors elsewhere.

The Senate proposal would require the disclosure of the lawmaker who requested 
any earmark for funds paid directly to people outside the federal government, 
like a grant for a health clinic in a lawmaker¹s hometown. But that would not 
address most earmarks because they are funneled through the defense department 
or other government agencies to contractors.

Two House Democrats, Representatives Chris Van Hollen of Maryland and Rahm 
Emanuel of Illinois, have proposed a measure they say would block a lawmaker 
from requesting an earmark that would benefit a company, group or lobbying firm 
that employed a member of the lawmaker¹s family or a former member of the 
lawmaker¹s staff.

³The rules would prohibit any kind of self-dealing,² Mr. Van Hollen said in an 
interview, acknowledging that his party¹s support for the idea remains to be 
seen. ³It will be something of an indication of how serious we are about 

Mr. Obama called the idea ³sensible² and said he supported it. But almost no one
expects the Democrats to enact such a change, in part because many have close 
ties to former staff members or family members in the lobbying business.

Ms. Feinstein, for example, said she hoped to extend the Senate bill to require 
disclosure of all earmarks, including defense projects. But she said she would 
oppose a measure like Mr. Van Hollen¹s because it would prevent her from 
directing funds to California cities because their lobbyists include former 
staff members.

Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company

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