Tuesday, January 23, 2007

The debates on a House bill that would nix federal pensions for convicted lawmakers and a Senate measure to cut pork spending underscored how scandal-scarred Republicans are backing broader ethics reforms than the new Democratic majority is.

“We did have colleagues who violated the trust of the Congress and the public. We have to fix it,” said Rep. Lee Terry, a Nebraska Republican whose pension-reform bill was sidelined by Democratic leaders in favor of a weaker bill. “When one of our own breaks the rules, we don’t rally around them.”

The House yesterday started considering a bill by Rep. Nancy Boyda, Kansas Democrat, that denies federal pensions to members of Congress convicted of bribery, perjury and conspiracy offenses related to the lawmaker’s office. A vote could come as soon as today.

Separate bills by Mr. Terry and Rep. Mark Steven Kirk, Illinois Republican, would have withheld the pension from lawmakers convicted of a longer list of felonies, including some unrelated to abuse of office — ranging from white-collar embezzlement crimes to political crimes such as securing campaign contributions by intimidation.

The Democratic bill had a shorter list of pension-losing crimes because the leadership promised “this bill can be passed and enacted into law as soon as possible,” said Shanan Guinn, spokeswoman for Mrs. Boyda.

Meanwhile, Senate Democrats fought to defeat a Republican measure that would authorize the president to remove earmarks — and send them back to Congress for a second look and another vote. Earmarks, or pork, are provisions in a bill to fund specific projects, often used by members of Congress to pay for pet projects in their home districts or states.

Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, said through a spokesman that earmark reform was just a ruse to pass a “line-item veto.”

“It would be used to attack Social Security, Medicare and other items for those with the greatest need,” spokesman Jim Manley said.

Under the proposal, the power to revise spending bills differs from a line-item veto in that either the House or Senate can reject it with a simple majority vote. Congress passed a true line-item veto in 1996, which would have required a two-thirds majority in both chambers to override. The Supreme Court declared the veto unconstitutional two years later.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, called it a common-sense approach to fiscal responsibility.

“Americans are watching, and we are committed to ensuring that this common-sense reform gets the vote it deserves,” he said. “Fiscal responsibility is not just an Election Day issue. If we are serious about reform, we must take the steps necessary to connect fiscal rhetoric with fiscal reality.”

A vote on the amendment could come as soon as tomorrow.

Mr. McConnell co-sponsored the amendment with Sen. Judd Gregg, New Hampshire Republican.

The amendment was originally attached to an ethics reform bill and nearly doomed that legislation when Sen. Robert C. Byrd, West Virginia Democrat, single-handedly blocked a deal to give Republicans the vote they demanded. The ethics bill passed 96-2 Thursday after both sides agreed to debate the earmark provision with the minimum-wage bill.

On the Senate floor yesterday, Mr. Byrd said revision authority was “a piece of garbage” and argued that Congress should not abdicate the “power of the purse” to the executive branch.

Other Republican-proposed ethics reforms have met resistance.

Last week, Senate Democrats initially balked at a Republican-backed measure to disclose all earmarks as opposed to just a sliver of the earmarks, as the majority proposed. In the face of criticism, Mr. Reid changed course and embraced the bill after delaying a final vote when the proposal unexpectedly survived a procedural vote to kill it.

The Senate voted 98-0 to adopt the measure as an amendment to ethics legislation, with 38 Democrats and seven Republicans switching their votes to support the measure they had opposed.

Similarly, pension reform was not originally part of the agenda for House Democrats. They adopted the cause after the Senate passed it and Mr. Terry and Mr. Kirk introduced their bills.

House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer then assigned the bill to Mrs. Boyda, a freshman from a vulnerable district who made a strong issue of campaigning against Washington corruption.

Mr. Hoyer was restrained in his praise for Mrs. Boyda’s bill, saying that it “could be better, but it is timely” and that Congress needs “to do the right thing” on ethics.

Neither the Boyda bill nor the Republican proposals would be retroactive. Pensions will still go to convicted felons such as former Republican congressman Bob Ney, who was sentenced Friday to 30 months in prison for bribery involving disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff. When Ney turns 62 in 2016, he will be eligible for an estimated $29,000 annual pension.

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