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. This week, Democrats delivered on that promise by achieving final passage of S.1, the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act of 2007. The legislation will strengthen internal Senate rules regarding gifts and travel, slow the “revolving door” for former Senators and staff, enhance and better enforce lobbying disclosures, reduce “dead of night” changes to conference reports, require earmark transparency, and ban the pay-to-play K Street Project. Once the legislation is signed by the President, the 110th Congress, under Democratic leadership, will accomplish what previous Republican congresses would not: enact the toughest, most sweeping ethics and lobbying reform in a generation.
The American people are fed-up with corruption and abuse in Washington. Faced with the Abramoff scandal, criminal indictments, resignations, and the Republican 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 is — and now passing that legislation in both Houses — a significant step on the road toward restoring the American people’s faith in government. (CNN, “Corruption named as key issue by voters in exit polls,” 11/8/06)
Some Senate Republicans stood in the way of ethics and lobbying reform. In June, one Republican Senator, with the support of several members in his Caucus, blocked the bill from going to conference with the House of Representatives. Congressional Democrats, disappointed but undeterred, worked to overcome these time-wasting, obstructionist tactics in favor of a bill that would change the way business is done in Washington.
Democrats succeeded in overcoming Republican obstructionism to pass S.1. Although Democrats wanted to move the House and Senate reform bills through the regular conference process, Republican obstructionism foreclosed that opportunity and forced Congressional leaders to pursue other legislative options. In lieu of a conference report, House and Senate Democrats agreed to advance a version of S.1 that encompassed the reforms of both the House and Senate-passed measures. On July 31, the House passed that version of S.1 on overwhelming 411 to 8 vote, and on August 2, the Senate concurred with the House on a vote of 83 to 14. Every Democratic Senator voted in favor of this bill, which is now cleared for the President’s signature.
Washington watch-dog groups have consistently praised the Democrat-led Congress’s efforts to ensure transparency and accountability in Washington. When the Senate first passed S.1, 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 the bill “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)
After final passage, Democracy 21 President Fred Wertheimer again praised Democrats and noted that this, “landmark lobbying and ethics reform legislation is a great victory for the American people.” (Democracy 21, press release, 08/02/07)
SUMMARY OF MAJOR PROVISIONS
Congress, under Democratic leadership, voted to toughen rules governing gifts and travel. S.1 will:
· 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;
· Requires entertainment and sporting events to be valued at true market value; if a ticket has no face value, it must be valued at the cost of the most expensive ticket;
· Prohibit a Senator, who is not his/her party’s nominee for President, from participating in an event to honor him/her at a national party convention that is directly paid for by a 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 will be made for one day trips or trips paid for by 501(c)(3) (charitable) organizations);
· Prohibit lobbyists from participating in privately paid congressional travel.
· Require that Senators and staff receive approval from the Ethics Committee before accepting expenses for any trip and that, within 30 days, a Senator’s trips paid for by private sources be disclosed on the Internet; and
· Require members to pay full charter rates for travel on non-commercial planes.
S.1 will slow “the revolving door” for former Senators and staff. The legislation will:
· 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; 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.
S.1 will require disclosure of private employment negotiations. The measurewill:
· 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 will 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 will create or appear to create a conflict of interest given those negotiations.
S.1 will prohibit staff contact with lobbyists who are family members of their Senator. The legislation willamend the Senate rules to prohibit staff from being lobbied by any member of their Senator’s immediate family.
The landmark Democratic reform bill will significantly expand lobbying disclosure requirements related to lobbyists. S.1 will:
· Require quarterly, rather than semiannually, filing of current disclosure reports;
· Require disclosure of contributions to federal candidates and leadership PACs by lobbyists;
· Require lobbyists to disclose various other contributions made to entities related to Senators, Presidential libraries, and Inaugural committees;
· Require the disclosure of lobbyists’ bundled campaign contributions in excess of $15,000 per six months;
· Require registrants to disclose in their registration statements all past executive and congressional employment within the past two decades;
· Increase the civil penalty up to $200,000 for failing to comply with disclosure requirements;
· Increase the criminal penalties, up to 5 years imprisonment, for knowing and corrupt violations of the Lobbying Disclosure Act (LDA) provisions; and
· Prohibit registered lobbyists from providing gifts or travel to members of Congress or congressional staff that the lobbyist knows will violate congressional rules.
The legislation will also require the creation of a searchable, sortable database that contains information included on LDA disclosure reports.
S.1 will prohibit partisan efforts like the K Street project. The legislation will amend the Senate rules and federal criminal law to prohibit specifically a Senator from threatening to take or withhold official action in order to influence the employment decisions or practices of a private entity solely on the basis of partisan political affiliation.
S.1 will deny pensions to former Members convicted of certain crimes. The legislation will 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.
S.1 will protect the integrity of conference reports. The measure will amend the Senate rules to permit a 60-vote point of order against individual items contained in conference reports that have not been committed to the conferees by either legislative body. This legislation will 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.
Despite Senate Republican rhetoric to the contrary, S.1 will also provide the most sweepingtransparency to the earmark and legislative process ever enacted. The legislation will amend the Senate rules to create a point of order against a motion to proceed to consideration of a bill, joint resolution, or vote on a conference report if the earmarks and the names of Senate earmark sponsors are not disclosed on the internet 48 hours in advance. Committee chairmen will be required to identify earmarks and sponsors as soon as possible after the mark-up of a bill. For a classified earmark, the sponsor’s name will also be required in the unclassified language of the measure, along with any descriptive information that does not compromise national security. Earmark disclosure is also required in amendments with earmarks.
For the first time ever, the landmark reform bill will allow any Senator to raise a point of order against “new directed spending items” added into conference reports not committed to by the conferees. If the point of order succeeds, the new provision will be struck.
Earmark sponsors will have to submit to the committee of jurisdiction: their name, the purpose of the earmark; for spending earmarks, the name and location of the recipient or activity or for tax or tarrif benefit earmarks, the beneficiary; and a certification that neither the Member nor his/her immediate family has a pecuniary interest in the earmark.
Further, the bill will amend the Senate rules to prohibit a Senator or staff from using his/her official position work for a congressional earmark that will financially benefit the Senator or his/her immediate family member.
S.1 will also end the Senate practice of secret holds by requiring Senators seeking to block a piece of legislation from going forward to identify him/herself within six session days.