- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Both House and Senate Republicans yesterday committed to ending privately paid travel, to clamping down on lobbyists’ gifts and to restricting former members’ privileges in the wake of corruption convictions and ethics accusations aimed at Republicans and Democrats.

“One of the things that we have to do is be able to make sure that our members are above question,” House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert said at a press conference yesterday announcing the House Republicans’ goals and timetable on the issue.

“I think members can probably function very well in this town without having to go out to lunch with a lobbyist or to dinner with a lobbyist. They can pay for it for themselves,” the Illinois Republican said.

Republicans have jumped into action this month after the Jan. 3 announcement that lobbyist Jack Abramoff would plead guilty to trying to bribe members of Congress and would help Justice Department investigators.

The news prompted a shake-up of House leaders and pledges to rewrite travel and gift rules.

House Republican leaders want to ban former House members who are now lobbyists from the House floor or the gym, double the time a former member or senior staffer must wait before lobbying Congress and remove the pension of any former member convicted of a felony relating to official duties.

That last provision is aimed at former Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham, a California Republican who resigned last year after pleading guilty to accepting bribes.

At the other end of the Capitol, Republican Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania yesterday held a separate press conference pushing travel and gift rule changes, a ban on senators’ relatives lobbying Congress and new reporting requirements for lobbyists, including listing any gifts they give to members or staffers.

Some of the changes, such as floor privileges, can be done quickly. Rep. David Dreier, California Republican and chairman of the House Rules Committee, promised to pass that change out of his committee in early February. Other provisions, such as the pension forfeiture, would require new laws.

Republican leaders in both chambers want to have full packages ready for floor votes in March.

Democrats said it was too little too late, and said Republican leaders are trying to shift blame on lobbyists rather than accept responsibility.

“Today’s announcements by House and Senate Republicans should be taken at face value — minor wrist slapping and good public relation stunts by the same people responsible for this mess,” said Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat.

He and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California will counter with their own reform proposal today, and a congressional Democratic aide said each plank will underscore a Republican scandal.

The “Jack Abramoff reform” will ban receipt of meals, entertainment or travel from lobbyists, and the “Frist and Hastert reform,” will require conference committees to vote on all amendments and require that members have 24 hours before having to vote on the final conference report.

Democrats also will propose more disclosure and filing for lobbyists, including certifying they did not violate any rules, which they name the “Ralph Reed reform” after a major Republican lobbyist, and will demand that Republicans end the “K Street project,” a strategy that encourages businesses and trade associations to hire Republicans to do their lobbying and promote their message.

Even some Republicans said some of the new rules seemed misplaced.

“The solution to the problems we face is to stop abuses of power by Congress or individual members, not more bureaucratic rules,” said Rep. John Shadegg, Arizona Republican and one of the three candidates running to become House majority leader.

He also said some private trips are worthwhile educational opportunities and said a complete ban “would be an overreaction that doesn’t get to the root of the problem.”

Republican leaders in both chambers said yesterday they want to try to rein in 527s, the organizations named for the part of tax code that governs them, which have become the conduit of choice for large, mostly unregulated campaign contributions to interest groups like MoveOn.org and the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth in the last presidential election.

Mr. McCain said he wants to try to reform or end earmarks — the process of designating money for a specific project, which critics call “pork-barrel spending.”

He said recent projects, like the “bridge to nowhere” earmark to build a bridge to serve a few dozen people in Alaska, have changed the public mood on the issue.

“We’ve reached a tipping point now, where the American people are saying, ‘Enough,’ and to go back and tell your constituents, ‘Well, I got this pork-barrel project for you, and that’s sufficient for my re-election,’ no longer works,” he said.

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