Washington, DC — Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid today delivered the following floor remarks on new lobbying reform legislation under debate in the Senate. Americans were shocked by the revelations of illegal activity by Republicans in Washington, but the culture of corruption goes further than just law breaking. That’s why Democrats responded with real solutions, offering the Honest Leadership Act, setting the tone for debate, and making a tough standard the baseline for reform. Now the Senate is beginning debate on a lobbying reform proposal that incorporates much of the Honest Leadership Act, and Democrats stand ready to offer amendments to make the bill even stronger.
The remarks, as prepared, follow below.
Statement of Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid
Honest Leadership and Open Government Act
March 6, 2006
In recent months, the public has been shocked and outraged over stories detailing abusive and criminal practices by lobbyists, Senior Administration officials, Members of Congress, and congressional staff. A number of the participants in these schemes that breached the public trust have pled guilty – Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff, former staffer for the recent House Republican Majority Leader Michael Scanlon, and Republican Member of Congress Duke Cunningham and one of his co-conspirators, Mitchell Wade. Others are under indictment, including Bush political appointee David Safavian.
The guilty pleas, indictments, and documents released to date suggest wrongdoing or improper behavior, as well, by many others, including a former Deputy Secretary of the Interior, other former aides to the recent House Republican Majority Leader, former aides to Republican Senators, Grover Norquist, a close ally of the Bush White House, Ralph Reed, and the heads of two other groups closely associated with the Republican party.
The American people understand these are not one or two isolated incidents. They understand this is a clear pattern of wrongdoing, wrongdoing that can only be explained by an alarming sense of impunity.
The public understands these individuals felt that they were above the law. They felt that they could ignore the rules. They felt that the government was not there to serve the people’s interest, but to serve their own special interests or the interests of their cronies. What the public has seen is a [Republican] culture of corruption that has distorted government priorities and grown into the greatest pubic corruption scandal since Watergate.
As we begin this debate, it is important to realize that this corruption and wrongdoing often violated existing laws and congressional ethics rules. It is already illegal to offer or accept a bribe. It is already illegal to defraud your clients. It is already illegal to lie and commit perjury. The rules already prohibit Members from taking trips that have no real business purpose and are just excuses to golf. So much of what went on was already criminal or clearly unethical. The problem in many cases was not in the rules, it was in the culture of corruption that allowed everyone to feel that they could ignore the rules.
But, in other cases, it was also clear that the Rules had some shortcomings. In these areas, we need to expand disclosure and to tighten up rules that had been abused. We also need to find some way to restore public faith in the integrity of the government. And the best way for us to do that is to show the public that we take this issue seriously and that we will act aggressively and swiftly to change the culture in this town.
That is why I am so proud of what my Democratic colleagues and I have been able to do this year. As soon as we came back from the winter recess, we acted decisively. We unveiled sweeping reform principles and backed them up with legislation. It is one thing to address this issue through hastily called press conferences that offered no details. It is another to put reform to paper and introduce a reform bill that has the support of virtually the entire Democratic caucus. And that is what we did.
The Honest Leadership Act took the bull by the horns and fundamentally changed the debate on ethics and lobbying reform. Democrats stood united and said, “We are not going to let this process drag on and hope that people get distracted; we are going to seize the initiative and begin to change the culture of corruption.” The Democrats established the baseline for reform by getting caucus-wide support for a tough and comprehensive reform bill. Democrats raised the stakes on this issue and forced the Senate to deal with this in a meaningful way. I would like to commend Senators Feingold, Obama, Lieberman, Dodd and Levin for their initial work in this area and their efforts to advance these reform proposals in the Senate.
So, I am glad we are here today. I think it is fair to say we would not be here, and certainly not with as strong a bill, if not for the efforts of my Caucus in the Honest Leadership Act. In fact, much of what Democrats supported in S. 2180 has been included in the bill we are taking up today.
– Slow the revolving door between government jobs and lucrative private sector employment.
– Revoke Floor Privileges for former Member lobbyists.
– Eliminate gifts paid for by lobbyists, not just disclose them.
– More disclosure and scrutiny of privately-funded travel.
– Stop dead of night legislating by making conference reports available on the internet.
– More frequent and more detailed lobbyist disclosure available on the internet and increased civil penalties for violations.
– Required ethics training for congressional staff.
– New disclosure for stealth lobbying campaigns by business coalitions and Astroturf lobbying campaigns.
Now, not all of what the Democratic Caucus sought is in the bill, and in some cases the provisions that were included are weaker than what Democrats sought. Democrats will offer amendments to strengthen the bill in these areas. But, I am very pleased that so much of what we worked for as a Caucus has now gained broad bipartisan support.
During this debate, I hope we remain honest with the American people about an important point. When we approve this bill, we will not have “put the Abramoff scandal behind us.” Indeed, it is likely that future indictments and additional revelations will end any confusion on this point. The only way we put the Abramoff and other scandals behind us and restore the public faith in government is by each and every one of us conducting ourselves and operating this institution with the highest level of integrity.
Let’s remember, the costs of corruption are high. And it is the America people who pay them. The culture of corruption in Washington erodes the ability of our government to meet the needs of our people
Look at this Administration’s response to hurricane Katrina and the growing national unease about our security both here and abroad. Just imagine – if Duke Cunningham and his co-conspirators had not succeeded in spending tens of millions of taxpayer dollars to give their cronies bogus contracts, that money could have been used to pay for body armor, for port security, or some other critical need.
The culture of corruption distorts our priorities and frustrates efforts to address the real needs of Americans — who are trying to cope with high natural gas prices to heat their homes, high fuel prices for their cars, concerns about their own retirement security and a growing sense that they are having to work harder and harder to maintain even their current standard of living.
We were sent here to serve the people in our states and the country. We have been given an awesome responsibility and a real privilege. I hope we can begin clean up this mess in Washington so that we can get on with the nation’s business.
America deserves a government as good as its people.
Together, America can do better.