Congress passes ethics reform
The House finally joined the Senate in passing its ethics reform bill. Because objections from Republican Sen. Jim DeMint prevented the bill from going through conference committee, we have two curious effects: The law features different rules for the House and Senate, and the Senate will now have to vote on the new version before a unified bill becomes law.
The House on Tuesday overwhelmingly approved a sweeping lobbying and ethics reform bill on a 411-8 vote.
“We have kept our promise to drain the swamp that is Washington, D.C.,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said, adding that the legislation is “historic.”
Among the few dissenters was (of course) John Murtha. And for pure ironic humor, you can't beat this: over in the Senate, Ted Stevens has threatened to place a hold on the legislation.
Pelosi's grandiose words aside, this is a work in progress, not a finished product. For one thing, at least some of DeMint's fears appear justified: the House version appears to be less stringent than the Senate version in a few respects. (Here's the text (pdf) of the revised bill that the above link is working from.)
Are they key respects, however? Not really. Let's go through their objections:
The old version (passed by the Senate) required conference / committee reports to list all earmarks and required the chairman of the relevant committee to distribute the earmark list. But the new version of the bill allows the Majority Leader (as opposed to the Senate parliamentarian, a more objective judge) to determine whether or not a conference report complies with the disclosure requirements.
True, but minor. Somebody has to certify it. The Senate parliamentarian is by tradition nonpartisan and accorded a fair bit of deference, but s/he serves at the pleasure of the majority leader, so the distinction is less material than it might seem. That said, I'd support changing it back to the original.
The new version removes the requirement for earmark lists posted online to be in searchable format.
This appears to be simply wrong. For example, Page 68, line 6 and Page 69, line 3 expressly require a searchable format. The exception seems to be when a bill emerges from conference committee. The earmark data is still required to be publicly available 48 hours prior to vote, but the "searchable" requirement is missing (page 69, lines 22-24). Whether that's deliberate or simply a mistake, I don't know. But again it's a minor, easily fixed problem that doesn't change the underlying reporting requirement.
The new version removes the provision that prevented any bill from being considered at all prior to the disclosure of earmarks; now the text only prohibits a formal motion to proceed, which leaves open a procedural loophole that would allow bills to slip through without disclosure.
I'm no parliamentarian, but I'm not sure what loophole the writer envisions here. In the Senate, procedure is everything. Can someone tell me how a bill could reach the Senate floor for debate without a motion to proceed?
The old version prohibited earmarks which benefit a Member, their staff, or their family/their staff’s family. The new version waters that down and only prohibits earmarks that would “only” affect those parties --- which means so long as you can make a case that your shiny new project affects at least one person other than you positively, you’re all set.
This again appears to be wrong. Page 73, lines 8-11 require senators to certify that their relatives do not have a monetary interest in the item. That prohibition is fleshed out (and weakened somewhat) on Page 76, lines 3-12. But it does not go as far as the writer suggests.
It says no member may knowingly request an earmark if "a principle purpose" of the earmark is to benefit "only" the member, or members of his family, or (and this is the biggie) a "limited class of persons or enterprises" of which the member or his family is a member.
That language seems pretty reasonably drawn to prohibit narrowly directed self-benefit. It wouldn't, for instance, outlaw the kind of earmarks I wrote about a year ago, in which a project in a member's district benefits the member. Which only makes sense. Lawmakers live in their districts; a rule that banned earmarks that benefited lawmakers even indirectly or in a small way would be unworkable.
So this list appears to be a collection of mostly minor complaints, the strongest of which is the issue with the parliamentarian.
Now that we know what the bill doesn't do, here's what it does do:
1. Lawmakers must disclose "bundled" contributions of $15,000 or more from lobbyists.
2. Earmarks must be disclosed 48 hours in advance of a bill's consideration, along with the name of the Congressmember that requested it, the cost and a description of the project and the beneficiaries.
3. Senators and candidates would have to pay full charter fare to fly private jets. House members cannot fly in private planes.
4. Legislators and their staff may not accept gifts from lobbyists.
5. Senators must wait two years after leaving office to become lobbyists; House members must wait one year.
6. Lawmakers may not attempt to influence hiring decisions at lobbying firms -- a direct blow at the K Street Project idea.
Those are real reforms. Could Congress do more? Of course. Severe statutory restrictions on the number and value of earmarks would be a great idea, for instance, as well as some basic rules for justifying them. But Democrats can honestly say they've enacted more reforms than any Congress in recent memory. And Republican criticisms ring pretty hollow considering it was their misbehavior that led to Democrats promising such reform. Anything this Congress does will be more than the previous Republican Congresses did.
The next step -- after passage of the final bill -- is to watch and see how and if members try to get around the rules. There will almost certainly be some unintended consequences that will need to be fixed, which could be an opening for weakening some of the rules. Democrats have talked the talk and walked the walk as far as passing the legislation goes; now we have to see if they'll walk the walk as far as following it.
But it's a good start, and deserving of praise.
ethics, politics, midtopia