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.