- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 20, 2007

Freshman Democrats and watchdog groups are warning that a lobby-reform bill falls short of breaking improper ties between lobbyists and lawmakers.

Many of the freshmen campaigned last year on restoring ethics in Congress. They will vote for the bill, calling it a good first step, but hope to strengthen it through negotiations this week.

The measure, written by Democrats, gives more transparency to lobbying activities by increasing disclosure rules and giving greater public access to financial contribution reports.

A chief complaint is that the bill does not address what is called a “revolving door” of congressional members and staffers. People are prohibited from lobbying for one year after leaving their congressional posts, but watchdogs and several Democrats want that period extended to two years.

Rep. Zack Space, Ohio Democrat, said he and other members of the freshman class may push the House leadership to allow amendments addressing the revolving door and to create an independent ethics office.

Mr. Space said the bill is a “positive sign,” adding: “Any movement is better than none.”

He was elected in November to replace former Rep. Bob Ney, a Republican sentenced to prison for his role in lobbyist Jack Abramoff’s corruption scandal, and has become a point man on ethics issues.

“I think I’ve got a certain sense of responsibility to try and take a high-profile position and restore some of that faith that’s been lost,” he said.

Rep. John Conyers Jr., Michigan Democrat and chairman of the Judiciary Committee, argued during a hearing Thursday that a two-year ban on lobbying was too harsh. He said such a provision could discourage talented people from taking jobs on Capitol Hill because it would limit their future opportunities.

Watchdog groups disagree.

“If the Democrats can’t get their act together and pass something, they are making the exact same mistake Republicans made in thinking the public has forgotten Jack Abramoff,” said Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. “They are dead wrong.”

“The problem is that members leave and they are immediately trading on their relationships with other members and bad policy decisions are being made,” she said.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, praised the bill, dubbed the Honest Leadership, Open Government Act. “The lobbying reform bill … fulfills our promise to the American people to make the 110th Congress the most open, honest Congress in history,” she said.

Mrs. Pelosi also squashed some complaints that the bill was too weak by saying she will support an amendment addressing “bundling,” a process by which lobbyists collect and deliver campaign checks to lawmakers. Lobbyists who bundle should be required to meet “strict reporting and disclosure guidelines,” she said.

Democrats were swept to power last fall in part because they pledged quick action to clean up the way Washington does business after several scandals plagued the Republican Party.

Facing criticism, Democratic leaders are quick to note that on the first day they took power, they made changes to House rules to ban lobbyist-funded gifts, travel and meals. They say the lobbying bill expands on their initial efforts.

“Democrats are fulfilling our promise to end the Republican culture of corruption,” said Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, Maryland Democrat.

The lobbying-reform bill would require lobbyists to more frequently and in more detail disclose their campaign donations or contributions to a member’s charity or function. It would create a searchable online database that includes the disclosure forms for both lobbyists and lawmakers.

The Senate passed a lobbying-reform bill in January that most groups agree is stronger than the pending House plan. The measures would need to be reconciled before they are sent to President Bush for his signature.

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