Thursday, March 30, 2006

What's in the Senate's Lobby Reform Bill?

Yesterday the Senate passed - by an unsurprisingly huge margin - a bill called the Legislative Transparency and Accountability Act of 2006. The vote was 90-8, which the opposition coming for the most part from senators who felt the legislation did not go far enough (McCain, Obama, Kerry, Feingold, Graham, Coburn). Senators DeMint and Inhofe also voted against final passage.

What's in this bill? The following are drawn from coverage today in the NYT, WaPo, LATimes, and The Hill, as well as the Congressional Record.

- Lobbyists will be banned from purchasing gifts and meals for members of Congress.

- Lobbyists will be required to submit quarterly reports (rather than biannual ones) about their work, which will then be made publicly available. Lobbyists will also need to submit an annual report detailing their campaign contributions to candidates for federal office and to political parties. All travel arranged for legislators will also require disclosure.

- Senators will need to get prior approval from the Ethics Committee to go on any privately-funded trips [think of this as a sort of permission slip]. More disclosure requirements on this one, including the names of other passengers on board if a private aircraft is used as well as who paid for what.

- Former members of Congress and top executive branch officials will be banned from lobbying Congress for two years, rather than the current one year. Top Congressional aides will be banned for a year from lobbying any legislators in the chamber where they had been employed.

- Members would be allowed to lodge a point of order against any earmark inserted into a spending bill at the conference committee stage; a 60-vote majority would have to agree to retain the earmark if a point of order is filed. If it's utilized, this will be an important tool for the budget hawks.

- An amendment passed on Monday ends the practice of "secret holds" on legislation or nominations. Sponsored by Senators Wyden and Grassley, this addition to the bill passed 84-13, and is probably one of the most important long-term victories for proponents of open government.

Perhaps more importantly, we should turn now to what's not in the bill, and why are opponents already saying it doesn't go far enough?

- The Senate rejected an amendment by Senator Feingold to clarify the ban on lobbyist gifts; he wanted to keep corporate execs from picking up the check as well. That amendment was tabled by a vote of 68-30.

- Also rejected was the Collins-Lieberman-McCain plan to establish a Senate Office of Public Integrity, an outside watchdog body to monitor and govern ethics violations. That failed 30-67.

- Some amendments from Senator McCain, including one that would force lawmakers using private jets to pay charter prices rather than commercial prices, were blocked from consideration.

- Aside from the point of order provision governing a narrow portion of the earmark spectrum, no provisions were included to ban or limit earmarking.

Asked yesterday if he thought the bill lived up to the clamor for reform that had been echoing around Washington earlier in the year, Senator McCain laughed, according to the Washington Post, and said in true McCain style "The good news is there will be more indictments, and we will be revisiting this issue."

The House will debate lobbying reform as early as next week, and then differences between the bills will need to be hammered out so that it can go to the president. Each chamber can have different rules for its own members, but provisions going beyond chamber rules must match.

Don't get me wrong, I think the bill as passed is better than nothing. But in principle I agree with those who voted against it that it simply does not go far enough. The revolving-door ban should be longer, McCain's corporate jet amendment should have been considered, and earmark reform should be extended. This is a good beginning, but as McCain said, I think there's more to do.


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