Ethics bill aimed only at improving image of Congress
The Senate has approved a bill that would retool restrictions on lobbying members of Congress.
RESPONDING to the Jack Abramoff lobbying corruption scandal, the U.S. Senate has lopsidedly approved a bill ostensibly to assure ethical conduct in Congress, but it falls short. The bill lacks enforcement and permits the very kind of influence-peddling at the heart of the Abramoff case to remain hidden.
"I believe our reputation is at stake," Senator Inouye remarked as the Rules Committee prepared to send the bill to the Senate floor. "At this moment, I would say, a used-car salesman is about one notch above us." Sure enough, the bill has everything to do with trying to improve the reputation of Congress and little to do with effective ethics reform.
The 90-8 Senate vote came the day that lobbyist Abramoff was sentenced to nearly six years in prison for his fraudulent purchase of a cruise line. Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Barack Obama, D-Ill., who have led in pressing for tougher laws on lobbying, voted against it. McCain branded it "very, very weak."
The senators' intention became clear when they rejected a plan to create an independent, nonpartisan Office of Public Integrity to investigate accusations of ethics abuses. As always, lawmakers will be assigned to investigate themselves except when the glare cannot be ignored by law enforcement agencies.
The bill would prohibit lawmakers from accepting gifts and meals from lobbyists, but the lobbyists' clients may pay for them directly. Likewise, members of Congress could accept free lodging, travel and meals from companies, but would have to pay first-class fares if provided travel by their lobbyists.
It would not end "holds" on legislation by a single senator, but it would reveal who has exercised the archaic tactic. Such an anonymous hold was used to delay the Hawaiian sovereignty bill for years. The holder was generally known to be Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., but his exposure did not deter him.
The bill originally would have required American Indian tribes to register and file details of their campaign donations with the Federal Election Commission, as political action committees must do. Abramoff had quietly fleeced millions of dollars from Indian tribes and used the money to bribe members of Congress.
That provision didn't even make it to the Senate floor. Rules Committee Chairman Trent Lott, R-Miss., obliged Inouye's request to strike it from the bill.
Meanwhile, in the Indian Affairs Committee, Inouye was less successful in trying to sink a proposal that tribes report their casino gambling finances to their members, who were unaware that revenues were being funneled to Abramoff. The proposal is part of a larger bill to increase the National Indian Gaming Commission's oversight of tribal casinos.
"One sovereign does not tell another sovereign what to do," Inouye complained, according to the Desert Sun of Palm Springs, Calif., home to an Indian tribe that gave money to Abramoff. "We cannot impose (financial) transparency on the Japanese or the British."