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CONGRESSIONAL ETHICS
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June 1, 2007

The wake of the mid-term elections of 2006 seemed like prime-time for Congressional ethics reform. In the aftermath of the ever-growing Abramoff scandal and other Congressional black eyes, U.S. voters named in exit polls "corruption" one of the biggest factors in their ballot-casting. After the Democratic ascension to power in both Houses promises were made. Indeed, incoming Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi began her tenure with this promise:

"Our first order of business is passing the toughest Congressional ethics reform in history. This new Congress doesn't have two years or 200 days. Let us join together in the first 100 hours to make this Congress the most honest and open Congress in history."
Ethics rule changes did follow immediately in the House — new limits on gifts, meals and travel provided by lobbyists. But making changes to the interplay between money and politics is difficult and can't be accomplished by rules changes alone. Last year more than $2.5 billion dollars was spent on direct lobbying. That doesn't count the vast sums in campaign contributions lobbyists help raise. And on both sides of the aisle and among interest groups and businesses alike there has been opposition to many of the proposed changes.

But the public's opinion doesn't seem to have mellowed, according to a Harris poll from March, 2007: 79 percent of American adults think political lobbyists have too much power and influence in Washington and 84 percent think big companies have too much power and influence. There are a number of issues, each with their own nomenclature in play — disclosure, earmarks, bundling, the revolving door, Astroturf. How much has the new Congress kept its promises?

> More about ethics reform from Public Citizen.

The House Bill
In late May 2007 the House of Representatives passed a bill, "The Honest Leadership and Open Government Act of 2007." According to ethics watchdogs like Public Citizen's Joan Claybrook, the House delivered in some respects, especially in the matter of disclosure of lobbying tactics like "bundling" in which one lobbyist solicits checks from many donors for one candidate or campaign which was addressed in a separate measure. The new bill calls for disclosure of such monies and the lobbyists providing them — immediately and online.

But in the final mark-up some reforms were excised. The bill proposal which would instate a two-year "cooling-off period" on the "revolving door" in which ex-members and their staffers move from Capitol Hill to jobs with lobbying firms, was cut under pressure. According to Public Citizen: of members of Congress who left office between 1998 and 2004, 43 percent went on to become lobbyists - 42 percent of ex-House members and 50 percent of ex-Senators.

Lobbying reform advocates also faulted the bill for not addressing the issue of "Astroturf" — or "grass-roots" lobbying efforts paid for by lobbying firms. But that criticism was also leveled at the Senate ethics bill passed in January.

The Senate Bill
The Senate bill was also a mixed bag for reformers — in addition to not addressing Astroturf, a proposal to create an Office of Public Integrity didn't make the final cut. But this bill does ban gifts from lobbyists and organizations that hire lobbyists and prohibits most gratis travel. The bill also extended disclosure rules on fundraising and bundling and outright bans lobbyists from hosting events to "honor" individual members. And, in the Senate Bill, the revolving door two-year cooling offer period prevailed.

Here too, disclosure regulations are strengthened — especially in the case of earmarks. The bill requires that earmarks for federal agencies and private parties must be disclosed...and posted on the member's own Web pages.

Of course what results from Joint Committee action on these several bills remains to be seen.

> More about following the legislative process from Public Citizen.

New Tools for Following the Money...and the Votes
There's a new tool online which helps further illuminate the relationship between money and votes. Maplight.org is developing an database which combines all campaign contributions to U.S. legislators with legislatorsí votes on every bill, using official records from the Library of Congress Web site and the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. Visitors to the developing site can track how much the pharmaceutical industry contributed to each Senator voting Yes, and voting No, on an amendment to prohibit consumers from buying prescription drugs from abroad.

On the Web site for the group Sunlight Foundation you will find a number of tools developed to make Congress a more transparent entity for American citizens. Among their projects: an interactive Earmark Map which lets you track such appropriations by zip code! And, Congresspedia, "the "citizen's encyclopedia on Congress" that anyone including you can edit.

Related Media:
MOYERS ON AMERICA: CAPITOL CRIMES: Bill Moyers and team investigate the Abramoff lobbying scandal and the dark side of American politics — a web of relationships, secret deals and political manipulation.

References and Reading:
Center for Lobbying in the Public Interest
Center for Lobbying in the Public Interest (CLPI) promotes, supports and protects 501(c)(3) nonprofit advocacy and lobbying in order to strengthen participation in our democratic society and advance charitable missions. The Web site contains information on effective lobbying procedures.

The Center for Public Integrity
The Center for Public Integrity is a nonprofit, nonpartisan, tax-exempt organization that conducts investigative research and reporting on public policy issues in the United States and around the world. They post commentaries, list news stories of interest, and distribute the "Public i" newsletter. The Center maintains extensive online research projects including LobbyWatch, and PowerTrips, an investigation into Congressional travel.

The Center for Responsive Politics
The Center for Responsive Politics is a nonpartisan, nonprofit research group based in Washington, D.C. that tracks money in politics, and its effect on elections and public policy. The site contains comprehensive databases on 527s, PACS and breakdown of dollars by representative, major donors, donors by industry, and many others.

The Federal Election Commission (FEC)
The Federal Election Commission (FEC) is an agency created to administer and enforce the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1975 (FECA), the statute that regulates the financing of federal elections in the United States. It has jurisdiction over all subsequent campaign finance regulation. The Web site contains a searchable database of all campaign finance filings and a guide to the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2004.

Follow the Money: The Institute on Money in State Politics
The Institute on Money in State Politics is a national nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to accurate, comprehensive and unbiased documentation and research on campaign finance at the state level. The Institute develops searchable databases, makes them available to the public online, and analyzes the information to determine the role campaign money plays in public policy debates in the states.

Public Citizen
Public Citizen is a national nonprofit public interest organization "protecting health, safety, and democracy." Their Lobbyinginfo Web site features a report on Congressmen who retired to K Street (PDF) and offers a searchable database of lobbyists and their employments histories.

CONGRESSIONAL ETHICS RULES
House of Representatives Committee on Rules
United States Senate Committee on Rules and Administration
Senate Lobbying Rules
House of Representatives Lobbying and Public Disclosure Rules

Published June 1, 2007

Bill Moyers was president of the Schumann Center for Media and Democracy when it made grants for investigative research to Public Citizen.

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