- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 29, 2006

The Senate yesterday overwhelmingly passed tough restrictions on lobbyists, hoping to send a message that the public can trust legislators in Washington despite recent scandals suggesting otherwise.

Senators voted 90-8 to pass the bipartisan Legislative Transparency and Accountability Act.

Sen. Christopher J. Dodd said the downfall of lobbyist Jack Abramoff and former Republican Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham’s guilty plea and prison sentence on bribery charges “rocked the House” and created a climate of “disillusionment and distrust.” The corruption scandals were also the impetus to make a change, the Connecticut Democrat said.

“There is a sign that now is up in front of the Capitol here that says ‘not for sale,’” he said.

The vote took place as members got the news that Abramoff was sentenced yesterday to nearly six years in prison.

The Senate now must compromise with the House, which starts work today on its own lobbying-reform plan. If the Senate version becomes law, gone would be the typical practice of lobbyists treating lawmakers to meals at swanky restaurants. Members and their staffers would be required to take an ethics training course.

“With the public’s opinion of Congress at an all-time low, we have to do a better job at regaining that trust and that confidence,” said Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, Tennessee Republican. He also said he was pleased the measure creates a process to scrutinize pork-barrel spending proposals.

The Abramoff scandal has undercut the trust that is essential to democracy, said Sen. Joe Lieberman, Connecticut Democrat.

It created the impression that “in Washington, results go too often to the highest bidder, not to the greatest public good,” he said. “That is not the truth, but this legislation upends that perception.”

The bill creates a series of restrictions and tightens some rules already imposed on members and lobbyists.

Among the highlights is a requirement that members need preapproval for their travel through the ethics committee, and the banning of former legislators from the chamber floor. It extends the “cooling-off” period for members who retire to become lobbyists, making them wait two years before they can lobby former colleagues.

Under the measure, lobbyists would be required to file public quarterly reports on the Internet disclosing their activities and expenditures. The reports will be subject to audit. Violating the new lobbying rules could result in a maximum fine of $100,000, double what it is now.

“I think disclosure is going to make a big difference,” said Sen. Susan Collins, Maine Republican, noting that she worries the public no longer trusts Congress to make decisions untainted by special interests.

Several senators said the measure was not perfect, and were irritated that most of the 88 suggested amendments to the bill were killed without debate.

Sen. Russell D. Feingold sought to define a lobbyist as anyone employed by a company that has a registered lobbyist on the payroll, but the Wisconsin Democrat’s amendment was soundly rejected yesterday.

He argued the amendment would close a loophole allowing lobbyists to skirt the meals ban, but critics said the amendment was too broad.

Mr. Feingold balked at opponents and said if they had a problem with it, they could pay for their own meals. He ultimately voted against the final passage of the bill yesterday.

Sen. Barack Obama, Illinois Democrat, also opposed the bill, saying it “does little” to change the culture that allowed Abramoff to abuse the system.

“The Senate has missed a once-in-a-decade opportunity to clean up the way we do business in Washington,” he said.

Other senators opposing the bill were John Kerry, Massachusetts Democrat, and Republicans Tom Coburn and James M. Inhofe of Oklahoma, Jim DeMint and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and John McCain of Arizona.

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