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House passes ethics overhaul

- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 1, 2007

The Democrat-led House overwhelmingly approved tougher rules governing the relationship between lawmakers and lobbyists, and on legislators trying to slip "pork" projects into spending bills.

The legislation, which passed 411-8, requires senators to list pet spending projects, known as earmarks, on a public Internet site 48 hours before the bill goes to a vote and to certify that neither they nor their family have a financial interest in the project.

It also calls for lawmakers to identify lobbyists who bundle political contributions from several donors for them, if the lobbyists gives more than $15,000 in a six-month period; and it bans most lobbyist gifts to lawmakers, including junkets and lavish parties thrown at political conventions.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, said the bill made good on her party's promise to clean up Washington corruption.

"Today, with passage of the Honest Leadership Open Government Act, we draw back the curtains, throw up the windows and let the sunshine in," she said.

The measure attacks practices that permeated recent corruption scandals involving former lobbyist Jack Abramoff and former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham, California Republican. Both are in prison.

But many of the 190 Republicans voting for it did so begrudgingly, criticizing Mrs. Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, for writing the bill behind closed doors and making it weaker than earlier versions.

"Left on the cutting room floor were reforms added to the earlier bill by Republicans that won bipartisan support on the House floor — reforms that would do more than anything in the current bill to restore trust between the American people and their elected leaders," said House Minority Leader John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican.

He called on Mrs. Pelosi and Mr. Reid to schedule a vote on House Republicans' earmark reform measures, which he said would disclose all earmarks in all bills.

The Democrats' bill required disclosure of earmarks in spending bills, where most pork spending is hidden, but Republicans want the rules to apply to earmarks in other legislation, such as tax bills.

If the Democrats' bill passes the Senate as expected this week, it will be the third of the Democrats' top six priorities to reach President Bush's desk since they took control of Congress this year. That would help quell Republican criticism that the Democrats have been unproductive so far as the majority party.

But Rep. Rahm Emanuel of Illinois, chairman of the Democratic Caucus, said curbing the "culture of corruption" in Congress was more important than answering partisan criticism.

"This rewrites those rules and that is what is important," he said.

The other priorities, part of the "Six for '06" agenda, to pass Congress were an increase to the federal minimum wage, which Mr. Bush signed into law in May, and the implementation of the remaining 9/11 Commission recommendations, which the president is expected to sign.

A challenge still awaits the lobbying and earmarks bill in the Senate from a small band of Republicans led by Sens. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma and Jim DeMint of South Carolina, who say the bill should do more to reveal pork spending.

Mr. Reid called their criticism "unfounded" and cited five government watchdog groups that hailed the legislation, including Common Cause, Public Citizen and the League of Women Voters.

Senate leadership aides on both sides of the aisle said the bill will likely win the 67 votes needed to pass rules legislation.

In the House, the 'no' votes were cast by two Republicans and six Democrats, including Rep. John P. Murtha, Pennsylvania Democrat and chairman of the Appropriations defense subcommittee, who previously blasted ethics reforms as meaningless.

Under the legislation, members of Congress would have to take a one-year "cooling off" period before working as lobbyists and would be prohibited from collecting a federal pension if they are convicted of corruption charges.