March 29, 2006

Senate votes to clean up how Congress operates

By Thomas Ferraro

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Lawmakers would be prohibited from
accepting meals or gifts from lobbyists under a bill passed by
the Senate on Wednesday to clean up how the U.S. Congress
operates. Critics said it did not go far enough.

Prompted by the scandal surrounding disgraced lobbyist Jack
Abramoff, the measure was approved on a vote of 90-8 and would
also require lobbyists to be more open about their activities
and increase fines for those who break the rules.

Senators and staff would have to take ethics training and
senators would have to get approval from the Senate ethics
committee for travel funded by corporations, unions and other
outside groups.

"Pet projects" that senators have in the past slipped into
spending bills, often at the behest of lobbyists, would face
tougher scrutiny.

"With public opinion of Congress at an all-time low, we
have to do a better job of regaining that trust and that
confidence," said Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, a
Tennessee Republican. "This bill is a major step forward.

But public advocacy groups and some senators complained it
came up short. They were particularly upset that the Senate
defeated a proposal on Tuesday that would have set up an office
to investigate ethics complaints against members.

"The rejection of an office of public integrity will only
increase the lack of confidence the public has in the
Congress," said Public Citizen President Joan Claybrook.

Sen. Barack Obama, an Illinois Democrat, added, "I'm
frankly surprised at the degree of institutional resistance to
more significant reform."


Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, said
he would have liked to have seen "some other things in this

But, he added, "The bill makes a number of extremely
important changes."

Lobbyist Abramoff, a Republican, pleaded guilty to fraud
and conspiracy charges in January and is cooperating with
federal prosecutors in a widening corruption probe that could
ensnarl a number of members of Congress.

He was sentenced on Wednesday in an unrelated case to 70
months in prison for fraud in the purchase of a Florida casino
cruise line.

The House aims to pass its own lobby and ethics reform
legislation. Once the House acts, the two measures will be
folded together into one bill for final congressional passage.

Some Democrats have blamed recent ethical problems on a
Republican "culture of corruption," and hope to use it to help
win back control of Congress in the November elections.

Despite some doubts Congress will enact ethics reform,
Craig Holman of Public Citizen said, "Incumbents can't afford
to face voters without doing it."

Dick Woodruff of the Alliance for Justice, a coalition of
public advocacy groups, said the Senate measure would reduce
the influence of lobbyists but they would still pack plenty of
punch as among the top donors to congressional campaigns that
routinely run into the millions of dollars.

"Lobbyists don't give unless they think they get something
in return," Woodruff said.