Last November, Americans sent a clear message that unethical and illegal behavior would no longer be tolerated in the halls of Congress. Democrats answered the charge to clean-up Washington by making ethics reform their first priority in the 110th Congress. In January, Senate Democrats honored that commitment by passing S.1, the Legislative Transparency and Accountability Act of 2007. In doing so, with the help of the House of Representatives, we are poised to accomplish what the last Congress would not: Pass the toughest, most sweeping ethics reform in a generation — a real victory for the American people.
Corruption and abuse in Washington has rocked the American people’s faith in government. Faced with the Abramoff scandal, criminal indictments, resignations, and the K Street project, 42 percent of voters listed corruption in Washington as the most important factor in determining who they voted for in the last election. Making ethics reform the first bill of the new Congress was a significant step on the road to restoring their faith. (CNN, “Corruption named as key issue by voters in exit polls,” 11/8/06)
Senate Democrats worked in a bipartisan manner to pass comprehensive ethics and lobbying reform. S.1, the Legislative Transparency and Accountability Act of 2007, passed overwhelmingly in the Senate on January 18, 2007 on a 96-2 vote. If agreed to by the House and signed by the President, S.1 would strengthen internal Senate rules regarding gifts and travel, slow the “revolving door” for former Senators and staff, expand lobbying disclosure requirements, establish a study commission on ethics and lobbying, prohibit pensions for Members of Congress convicted of certain crimes, and implement reform procedures relating to earmarks and conference reports.
Washington watch-dog groups praised the passage of ethics reform. Fred Wertheimer, President of Democracy 21, applauded “Senate Democrats for standing firm for this critical ethics and lobbying reform legislation” and expressed his belief that the reforms would “change the way business is done in the Senate.” Melanie Sloan, Executive Director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), called S.1 “a promising move towards a cleaner Congress” and noted that “Majority Leader Harry Reid and the full Senate deserve credit for passing legislation that tackles many of the ethics issues that plagued the last Congress.” Mary Wilson, President of the League of Women Voters (LWV), recognized that “voters . . . expressed a clear dissatisfaction with the unbridled level of corruption in Congress, and . . . passage of ethics and lobbying reform indicates their voices are at last being heard.” (Democracy 21, press release, 01/18/07; CREW, press release, 01/19/07; LWV, press release, 01/19/07)
SUMMARY OF MAJOR PROVISIONS
Senators voted to toughen rules governing gifts and travel. S.1 would:
· Ban gifts, including de minimis gifts, from registered lobbyists, agents of a foreign principal, or a private entity that retains or employs a lobbyist or foreign agent;
· Require that the market value of a sporting or entertainment event ticket be the ticket’s face value or, in the alternative, the value of a similar ticket sold to the public (taking into consideration all of the ticket’s features and benefits). If there are no comparable tickets, the ticket would be valued at the cost of the most expensive ticket;
· Prohibit a Senator from participating in an event to honor him/her at a national party convention that is paid for by a lobbyist, someone who is required to be a registered lobbyist, or a lobbyist’s client.
· Extend the ban on travel paid for by lobbyists or agents of foreign principals to include restrictions on travel paid for by private entities that retain or employ lobbyists or foreign agents (an exception would be made for one day trips or trips paid for by pre-approved 501(c)(3) (charitable) organizations);
· Require that Senators and staff receive approval from the Ethics Committee before accepting expenses for any trip and that, within 30 days, trips paid for by private sources be disclosed;
· Require full disclosure of any travel on non-commercial airplanes, and establish that non-commercial air travel be valued at fair market value for the purpose of reimbursement; and
· Require that all certifications and disclosures filed by Senators and staff be made available to the public for inspection, and require the Senate and House to create a publicly available, searchable website with information on all privately-funded congressional travel.
Senators voted to slow “the revolving door” for former Senators and staff. The legislation would:
· Amend the Senate rules and federal conflict of interest law to ban former senior staff (persons making 75 percent of a Senator’s salary) from lobbying anyone in the Senate for one year, not just his/her former Senator or committee;
· Amend conflict of interest law to increase the “cooling off” period, in which former Members of Congress are barred from lobbying Congress, from one year to two;
· Expand the scope of prohibited actions taken by former Senators during their two year “cooling off” period, including prohibiting indirect lobbying through surrogates; and
· Amend conflict of interest law to increase the “cooling off” period for former “very senior” executive branch officials, including cabinet members, from one year to two.
The Senate voted to require disclosure of private employment negotiations. S.1 would:
· Amend the Senate rules to require a sitting Senator to publicly disclose private employment negotiations, until his/her successor has been elected. Irrespective of disclosure, a Senator would be prohibited from engaging in negotiations for lobbying related jobs until after his/her successor has been elected; and
· Require a senior staff member to disclose to the Ethics Committee employment negotiations and to recuse him/herself from official matters that would create or appear to create a conflict of interest given those negotiations.
Senators voted to prohibit staff contact with lobbyists who are family members of their Senator. S.1 wouldamend the Senate rules to prohibit staff from being lobbied by any member of their Senator’s immediate family, or the spouse of any Senator, who is a registered lobbyist or is retained by a registered lobbyist to influence legislation.
The Senate voted to significantly expand lobbying disclosure requirements. S.1 would amend the Lobbying and Disclosure Act of 1995 (LDA) to:
· Require quarterly, rather than semiannually, filing of disclosure reports;
· Require lobbyist registrants to disclose contributions to federal candidates, party committees, and leadership PACs for whom they sponsored fundraisers, or made, collected, or arranged contributions, as well as contributions to congressional gifts or presidential libraries;
· Require registrants to disclose in their registration statements all past executive and congressional employment;
· Increase the civil penalty up to $200,000 for failing to comply with disclosure requirements;
· Increase the criminal penalties, up to 10 years imprisonment, for knowing, willful and corrupt violations of LDA provisions; and
· Prohibit registered lobbyists from providing gifts or travel to members of Congress or congressional staff that the lobbyist knows would violate congressional rules.
The legislation would also require the creation of a searchable, sortable database that contains information included on LDA disclosure reports and registrations and links to the Federal Election Commission database.
Senators voted to prohibit partisan efforts like the K Street project. The legislation would amend the Senate rules to prohibit a Senator from threatening to take or withhold official action in order to influence the employment decisions or practices of a private entity on the basis of partisan political affiliation.
The Senate voted to deny pensions to former Members convicted of certain crimes. The legislation would require that Members of Congress convicted of bribery or illegal gratuities, or associated crimes, based on acts committed after the effective date, forfeit their federal pension.
Senators voted to protect the integrity of conference reports. S.1 would permit a point of order against individual items contained in conference reports that have not been committed to the conferees by either legislative body. This legislation would also prohibit consideration of conference reports unless the report had been provided to all Senators and made available on the Internet for at least 48 hours. The bill would also prohibit consideration of a conference report unless the official Congressional Budget Office estimate or table is available at the time of consideration.
The Senate voted to provide greater transparency to the earmark process. S.1 would create a point of order against a motion to proceed to consideration of a bill, joint resolution, or conference report if the names of congressional sponsors of certain earmarks are not disclosed on the internet 48 hours in advance. Disclosure of classified earmark sponsors would also be required in the unclassified language of the measure. In addition to their name, sponsors would have to submit to the committee of jurisdiction: the purpose of the earmark; the name and address of the recipient (or location of the activity) for spending earmarks or the beneficiary for tax or tarrif benefit earmarks; and a certification that the Member or Member’s spouse has no financial stake in the earmark. This legislation would require this information to be published on the appropriate committee’s website within 48 hours.
The bill would also amend the Senate rules to prohibit a Senator from using his/her official position to obtain a congressional earmark that would financially benefit the Senator, his/her immediate family member, the Senator’s employee, or the employee’s immediate family member.
The Senate also voted to establish the Study Commission on Congressional Ethics and require the Select Committee on Ethics to issue annual reports. S.1 would create a ten person bipartisan, bicameral commission to study and recommend improvements to congressional ethics requirements and enforcement. The measure would also require the Ethics Committee to report on the numbers of ethics violations reported, inquiries dropped, investigations conducted, letters of admonition issued, and matters resulting in disciplinary sanctions.