- The Washington Times - Monday, January 8, 2007

The Senate yesterday began debate on the Democrats’ ethics-reform package, with one of their chief spokesmen on the issue accusing lawmakers of being loath to support a ban on free private-jet flights for reasons of personal privilege.

Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois noted at a press conference held yesterday to announce the package — which Democrats hope to pass Friday — that such flights, usually funded by lobbyists or their corporate sponsors, let lawmakers avoid security lines.

“Why do you think there is resistance?” he said. “Well, because corporate jets are nice. They are convenient. They are waiting for you. You don’t have to take your shoes off.”

Mr. Obama, who has all but announced his run for president in 2008, said he voluntarily gave up flying corporate-class last year and now pays for chartered flights out of his hefty campaign account.

Critics of the proposals — which also include prohibitions on accepting gifts, meals or junkets funded by lobbyists — say monied special interests still could buy influence with campaign contributions. Mr. Obama promised to tackle campaign-finance reform later this year.

Democrats say the sight of senators and congressmen whizzing around in Learjets nettles a public that must endure the long lines and security checks of commercial air travel.

“When they find out that members of Congress can use a corporate jet and have that kind of convenience that the average person can’t have, it is one of those things that really stick in the craw,” said Sen. Russ Feingold, Wisconsin Democrat and co-sponsor of the ethics bill with Mr. Obama, adding that the free flights have a “corrupting influence.”

“When a lobbyist is in that plane with you, he or she has all kinds of time to lobby you, bend your ear,” Mr. Feingold said. “It is something the average citizen does not have. So to me, [a ban] is both substantive and symbolic, and it is a very important point.”

The Senate ethics bill closely mirrors legislation that began to move through the House last week. Both include measures to stop earmarks, the local spending provisions widely derided as pork that lawmakers bury in complicated bills, and to break up close ties between lobbyists and members of Congress.

Voter outrage over corruption in Washington, including the scandal involving disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff, is widely credited as a factor in the Democrats’ gains in the midterm elections. The issue became the first taken up by the new Democrat-controlled Congress.

“The American people demanded change, and the Democrats are ready to deliver,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said at the press conference. “In the end, the Senate will pass the most sweeping reforms since Watergate.”

Public backing for a crackdown makes supporters of the reforms confident that lawmakers will vote for the new rules, even if they have to give up flying free or at reduced rates on corporate jets.

Mr. Obama acknowledged that some lawmakers depend on private jets for legitimate congressional business. But he said they can find ways to pay for it themselves.

“In fairness, for folks who are traveling a lot or live in remote areas or have to travel to areas of the state that are difficult to get to or have irregular commercial flight schedules, there may be legitimate reasons for them to be concerned,” he said. “I just pay for it out of my campaign funds.”

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