Prospects for Ethics Reform in the 110th Congress

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In the 109th Congress the House and Senate both approved slightly different versions of a lobbying and ethics reform package titled the Lobbying Accountability and Transparency Act of 2006. Despite both Houses approving of the legislation the House refused to send members to a conference committee to hash out differences. The new 110th Congress may hold better prospects for the passage of ethics reforms.

Democratic Pledges for Lobbying and Ethics Reform

After emerging victorious in the November 7, 2006 elections Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi pledged "to lead the most honest, the most open and the most ethical Congress in history."[1] Pelosi has also pledged to sever the ties between K Street, the Washington corridor of lobbying firms, and Congress. To accomplish these goals the Democrats plan to reintroduce their package of lobbying and ethics reforms, the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act, in the new Congress.[2] Democratic leaders state that each individual proposal in the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act will be introduced separately. Many freshmen members will be given the chance to introduce certain aspects of the ethics and lobbying reforms as well.[3]

Honest Leadership and Open Government Act

The Honest Leadership and Open Government Act of 2006 was introduced by Democrats on January 20, 2006 in the wake of numerous guilty pleas by and indictments of lobbyists and members of Congress.

<USbillinfo congress="109" bill="H.R.4682" />

Bill Contents

  • Ban lobbyists from giving gifts or travel to members or their staff.
  • Require lobbyists to file electronic, quarterly reports. The report must contain information pertaining to efforts to stimulate grassroots support, previous work in the executive or legislative branches, and provide certification of the report with the possibility of criminal penalties for failing to submit a certified report. The bill also creates a searchable public database of lobbying reports.
  • Double the "cooling-off" period where lawmakers, staff, and Executive branch employees cannot lobby there former offices of employment from one-year to two-years.
  • Stop efforts like the "K Street Project" by banning efforts of members of Congress and staff to enforce partisan discipline in private organizations. The penalty would be a fine or up to 15 years in prison with a possible ban on serving public office.
  • Require lawmakers, staff, and Executive employees to disclose outside job negotiations and to receive approval from the Office of Government Ethics.
  • Require conference committees to be open to the public and require conference reports to be publicly available on the Internet at least 24 hours prior to a vote.
  • Require that any appointee to a public safety position have proven credentials and training in one or more areas that are relevant.
  • Provide oversight of government contracting. Require contractors to work for contracts in an open, competitive bidding process. Create stiffer penalties for wartime fraud and prohibit contractors with conflicts of interest from participating in competitive bidding.[4][5]

Congressional Actions

The House of Representatives

The bill was referred to six committees, Judiciary, Rules, Government Reform, Standards and Conduct, Armed Services, and Administration, and failed to emerge from any one of the six. When the Republican majority brought their ethics package, the Lobbying Accountability and Transparency Act of 2006, to the floor, Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.) offered a motion to recommit with instructions to strike the text of the bill and replace it with the text of the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act. The motion to recommit failed by three votes after four Democrats defected to the Republican side.

The Democrats who opposed the motion were led by Rep. John Murtha (D-Penn.), who rounded up the other three voters, Rick Boucher (D-Va.), Martin Sabo (D-Minn.), and Michael Capuano (D-Mass.).[6]

May 3, 2006
Failed, 213-216, view details
Dem: 196-4 in favor, GOP: 16-212 opposed, Ind: 1 in favor

The Senate

After introduction the bill was referred to the Committee on Homeland Security and Government Reform. Despite hearings being held the legislation was never voted on in committee. When the Republican majority brought their ethics reform package, the Lobbying Accountability and Transparency Act of 2006, to the floor Sen. Harry Reid offered an amendment to replace the proposed bill with the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act. The vote on the amendment fell on party lines and was defeated 44-55.

March 8, 2006
Failed, 44-55, view details
Dem: 43-0 in favor, GOP: 0-55 opposed, Ind: 1 in favor

Likelihood of Passage

The House of Representatives

With a new congressional majority and the support of the Speaker and the leadership these reforms should report out of committee and be passed in the 110th Congress. Only four Democrats previously opposed the bill while sixteen Republicans supported it. Seven of those Republicans are not returning to the 110th Congress and one of the Democrats is not returning. With a likely majority of 233 members the House Democrats should have no problem passing this legislation.

The Senate

The Senate side is more complicated. Incoming Majority Leader Harry Reid has declared his support for "swift" passage of lobbying and ethics reform.[7] He has, however, not pledged to do so as Speaker Pelosi has. Majority Leader Reid must also overcome any potential hold or filibuster by the minority Republicans. It is unknown whether incoming Minority Leader Mitch McConnell will support, or keep his caucus from filibustering, the Democrats' ethics and lobbying package.

Earmark Reform

Incoming Speaker Nancy Pelosi also stated that she will push to make the sponsors of congressional earmarks public prior to votes. She has stated, "There has to be transparency ... I'd just as soon do away with all (earmarks), but that probably isn't realistic."[8]

Possible Earmark Proposal

Prior to the 109th Congress convening for the midterm elections the Republican majority passed a rule change that made public the names of earmark sponsors on Appropriations bills. The majority of Democrats opposed the rule change stating that it did not go far enough. Reps. Rahm Emanuel and Chris Van Hollen offered an amendment to the earmark reform proposal that went much further than solely making the identity of the earmark author public. This amendment may serve as a guide to the earmark reform that the 110th Congress would pursue.

The Emanuel-Van Hollen amendment would:

  • Disallow earmarks that could personally benefit a member's spouse, child, or immediate family member.
  • Prohibits Members from awarding earmarks that will benefit a registered lobbyist or former registered lobbyist who serves as chairman of the leadership political action committee of the Member requesting the earmark.
  • Bans the awarding of earmarks to any entity that employs the spouse or immediate family member of the earmark’s sponsor, employs or is represented by a former employee of the earmark’s sponsor, or is represented by a lobbying firm that employs any spouse or close relative of the earmark’s sponsor.
  • Provides that no tax measure may contain any provision amending Title VI of the U.S. Code to benefit one individual, corporation or entity.
  • Prohibits the inclusion of earmarks and other provisions in conference reports without the language having first been in either the House or Senate legislation’s original language.[9]

Independent Oversight Commission

After the fall of super-lobbyist Jack Abramoff, Rep. Duke Cunningham, and Majority Leader Tom DeLay, outside good government groups called on Congress to create a new congressional oversight regime since both the House and Senate Ethics Committees failed to investigate any of these cases.

Two bills emerged in the 109th Congress, both in the Senate, with one sponsored by Sen. Barack Obama, S. 2259, and the other by Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Susan Collins.

Senate Vote on Office of Public Integrity

Both bills were directed to the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. Sen. Collins' bill, co-sponsored by then-Ranking Member Joe Lieberman, was the only bill to receive a hearing.

During the hearings Sen. George Voinovich, the Chairman of the Senate Ethics Committee, emerged as a chief opponent of the bill as he saw it taking away the responsibility and work of his committee.[10] On March 2, 2006 the bill was defeated in a committee vote of 11-5.[11]

Later that month when the Lobbying Accountability and Transparency Act of 2006 was under consideration on the floor of the Senate, Sen. Collins introduced her Office of Public Integrity bill as an amendment to the overall reform package. Her amendment failed 30-67.[12]

March 28, 2006
Failed, 30-67, view details
Dem: 22-20 in favor, GOP: 8-46 opposed, Ind: 1 opposed

Support & Opposition in the 110th Congress

Of the 30 Senators who supported the Collins Amendment 3 were defeated in their reelection bids. Sen. Obama plans on pursuing an Office of Public Integrity in the coming Congress and incoming Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Chairman Sen. Joe Lieberman supports the idea as well.[13] Opposition exists among many former and current members of the Senate Ethics Committee. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a former Ethics Committee member, voiced her opposition to the creation of an independent office stating, "If the law is clear and precise, members will follow it."[14]

Sen.-elect Jon Tester also voiced reservations on the creation of an independent office on Meet the Press. "Building a bureaucracy in Washington, D.C, is not something that I'm crazy about, so developing another office is something I'd have to take a hard look at before we did it," Tester said.[15]

Incoming Senate Ethics Committee Chairman Tim Johnson has also previously voiced his opposition to an Office of Public Integrity stating that it would "waste resources" and "duplicate the ethics committee".[16]

The creation of an independent commission fares the worst amongst the various ethics and lobbying reforms that will be proposed in the 110th Congress.

House action

On February 1, 2007, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) announced the creation of a "task force" to study implementation of an outside ethics body to oversee Congress. The task force, chaired by Rep. Michael Capuano (D-Mass.), issued it's report to the House in May 2007 and was comprised of the following members:[17]

On June 1, following the recommendation of the task force, Speaker Pelosi announced her intention to create an independent ethics commission that would allow outside groups to file complaints against members of Congress, which previously could only be filed by other members. The commission, as proposed, would consist of a four-person panel and could filter complaints, but would have no judging authority or subpoena power.[18] Implementation of the new commission was delayed, however, as many members were worried by the ability of non-members to submit complaints, fearing the change would be abused with politically motivated attacks. Fifty-three House members signed onto an alternative piece of ethics legislation, introduced by Rep. Baron Hill (D-Ind.), which would create a powerful investigative panel consisting of 12 former representatives, but would only allow complaints from sitting members.[19]

According to advocates familiar with the proposal in the House, the ethics panel would include the following components:[20]

  • Republicans and Democrats would appoint an even number of members to the panel — most likely three GOP and three Democratic appointees. Current lawmakers and lobbyists could not sit on the panel.
  • The panel would receive complaints from outside groups and then invite witnesses to provide relevant testimony.
  • The panel would not have subpoena power or the power to put witnesses under oath.
  • Upon receiving a complaint, the panel would have 45 days to compile a report recommending dismissal or further action and pass it to the House Standards of Official Conduct Committee. If the panel could not complete its report within 45 days, it could grant itself a short extension.
  • The ethics committee would have up to 90 days to create an investigative subcommittee to probe the complaint or vote to dismiss it. If the committee voted to dismiss the complaint, the independent panel’s report would be made publicly available.

Several congressional watchdog groups came out against the measure, citing a provision that requires organizations that submit complaints to the independent ethics committee to disclose their donors, putting the legislation in danger of failing. Organizations like Public Citizen, Common Cause, Democracy 21, and the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, who had made the creation of such an outside ethics board a major priority since the Jack Abramoff scandal, felt that having to disclose their donors was not a necessary part of reform and could put them in jeopardy. Members of the House pushing for the outside ethics office argued that watchdog groups can't call for openness in Congress, while denying transparency on their part. The reform organizations also argued that the ethics panel as it was being considered in the House was not strong enough to produce real ethics reform, making calls to strengthen the potential committee's investigative authority and provide it with subpoena power.[21]

Articles and resources

Related SourceWatch articles


  1. Jonathan D. Salant, "Republicans Pay for Scandals, Inaction on Ethics Law," Bloomberg, November 8, 2006.
  2. Jeffrey H. Birnbaum, "Lobbyists Won't Like What Pelosi Has in Mind," Washington Post, October 30, 2006.
  3. Jonathan Weisman, "Democrats Plan Series of Votes on Ethics Reforms," Washington Post, November 21, 2006.
  4. The Honest Leadership & Open Government Act, Democratic Party.
  5. THOMAS: H.R.4682, Library of Congress.
  6. Jonathan Singer, "Four Dems Give Unnecessary Cover to Weak GOPers," MyDD, May 7, 2006.
  7. "First, Ethics Reform," Washington Post, November 10, 2006.
  8. Peter Eisler and Kathy Kiely, "Democrats: Identify pork sponsors," USA Today, November 13, 2006.
  9. Press Release: Emanuel, Van Hollen Announce Real Earmark Reform, Office of Congressman Rahm Emanuel, September 12, 2006.
  10. Alexander Bolton, "Voinovich, Collins head for stand-off," The Hill, March 2, 2006.
  11. Jeffrey H. Birnbaum, "Ethics Office For Hill Rejected," Washington Post, March 3, 2006.
  12. Jeffrey H. Birnbaum, "Senate Votes Down Outside Ethics Office," Washington Post, March 29, 2006.
  13. David D. Kirkpatrick, "Democrats Split on How Far to Go with Ethics Laws," New York Times, November 19, 2006.
  14. David D. Kirkpatrick, "Democrats Split on How Far to Go with Ethics Laws," New York Times, November 19, 2006.
  15. "Tester champions ethics reform on 'Meet The Press,'" Associated Press (via Billings Gazette), November 19, 2006.
  16. Jeffrey H. Birnbaum, "Senate Votes Down Outside Ethics Office," Washington Post, March 29, 2006.
  17. Susan Crabtree, "Pelosi, Boehner announce task force on outside ethics panel," The Hill, February 1, 2007.
  18. Mike Soraghan, "Pelosi committed to allowing outside groups file ethics complaints" The Hill), June 1, 2007.
  19. Susan Ferrechio, "Ethics Revamp Roils Democrats; Pelosi Plans Meeting to Address Concerns," CQ, June 11, 2007.
  20. Alexander Bolton, "Groups balk at disclosure," The Hill, June 21, 2007.
  21. Alexander Bolton, "Groups balk at disclosure," The Hill, June 21, 2007.

External resources

External articles