- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Congressional Democrats, after six months tinkering behind closed doors with ethics bills, are rushing this week to strip some of the secrecy that shield lawmakers’ pet projects in spending bills and to tighten rules on lobbyists.

The legislation aims to fulfill Democrats’ campaign promise to clean up a scandal-scarred Washington, requiring that senators list their spending “earmarks” on a public Internet site at least 48 hours before a vote and to certify that neither they nor their family have financial interest in the project.

“The American people asked us in November to fix the way business gets done in Washington, and Democrats are heeding that call,” said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat.

But Republicans and Washington watchdog groups say the bill falls short of the promise.

The legislation, titled the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act, faces a formidable challenge from a band of a Republican senators led by Tom Coburn of Oklahoma and Jim DeMint of South Carolina.

They say the merged bill is weaker on exposing pork spending than the original Senate-passed version.

The watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) said Democrats touted the bill for “toughening penalties for falsifying financial disclosure forms” but actually would reduce jail time for the offense from five years to one year.

“How can you say dropping something from a felony to a misdemeanor is a stronger penalty?” asked Melanie Sloan, executive director of CREW.

Passage of the legislation — which requires disclosure of lobbyists who bundle political contributions from several donors and bans most lobbyist gifts to lawmakers — also would help deflect criticism that the Democrat-led Congress has been unproductive heading into the August recess.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, who wrote the bill in closed-door meetings with Mr. Reid, said the legislation would “make this Congress the most honest and open in history.”

Mr. Coburn pointed to at least eight provisions missing from the legislation that were in the Senate-passed bill, including prohibitions against senators trading earmarks for votes and a requirement that earmark information be posted on a searchable Internet database.

It would allow the Senate majority leader and committee chairmen to determine whether legislation satisfied the earmark disclosure requirements, rather than giving that authority to the nonpartisan Senate parliamentarian as in the original bill.

“This bill, which was negotiated in secret, guts key earmark reforms that both houses of Congress approved overwhelmingly,” said Mr. Coburn.

Mr. DeMint balked at giving the final say on earmarks to Mr. Reid and Sen. Robert C. Byrd, West Virginia Democrat and chairman of the Appropriations Committee.

“Under this bill, the American people would be forced to trust Senator Reid and Senator Byrd — two of the biggest earmarkers in the Senate — to certify earmark disclosure,” he said. “This bill allows the fox to guard the henhouse and makes a joke of ethics reform.”

The bill also limits junkets paid by lobbyists, bans lawmakers from attending parties thrown by lobbyists at national political conventions and limits lawmakers from taking reduced-cost flights on corporate or private jets.

It could go to a vote in the House as soon as today and in the Senate as soon as Thursday.

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