House to Firm Lobbying and Ethics Laws

House Democrats are expected to vote Wednesday on two bills that would strengthen laws governing lobbying and campaign contributions. The bill's prospects in the Senate are unclear.

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On this Thursday, the House appears ready to vote on legislation that would strengthen lobbying and ethics laws. It's ready after some last minute maneuvering. It's been four months since a similar bill passed the Senate and it's been almost seven months since the Congressional elections when Democrats pledged to make Capitol Hill less susceptible to corruption.

NPR's Peter Overby reports.

PETER OVERBY: Campaign promises or no campaign promises, the package of two bills had plenty of critics yesterday within the House Democratic caucus. Not that any of the critics wanted to talk about it, but in mid-afternoon one scenario foresaw House Speaker Nancy Pelosi winning enough support to start debate, but still coming up 30 votes short on the legislation itself.

Advocates of the legislation grew more optimistic as the day wore on. One reason was Pelosi's strong commitment. She made reform a key element of the 2006 Democratic campaigns. Another reason: the Democratic freshmen, the 42 newcomers who gave the party control of the chamber. Many of them campaigned against Republican corruption and they're impatient to follow through. Betty Sutton, a freshman from Ohio, serves on the powerful House Rules Committee.

Representative BETTY SUTTON (Democrat, Ohio): The American people have made it very clear that they expect us to clean this place up. So I think this is an important step and it could not have happened a moment sooner and on time.

OVERBY: House Rules is the committee that sets the terms for the floor debate. Last night it approved both bills while rejecting all but five of the four dozen proposed amendments. One of the bills would set new standards for disclosure by registered lobbyists and by lobbying coalitions. It would also require lawmakers to report if they started negotiating for a private sector job while in office. And it would prevent congressional spouses from becoming lobbyists.

The other bill is simple but more controversial. It would make lobbyists reveal their bundling activities. Bundling is the practice of soliciting campaign contributions and then delivering them to a favored member of Congress. Many Democrats benefit from bundling and they are afraid that even identifying the networks publicly would cause the money to dry up. Among the opponents: conservative Blue Dog Democrats who often represent districts without many Democratic donors, members of the Congressional Black Caucus, whose districts are often poor, and some entrenched senior members who have the clout to attract lobbyists' contributions.

One skeptic on the Rules Committee was Florida Democrat Alcee Hastings, a member of the Black Caucus. He suggested that good government groups and the media see all lawmakers as sinners who should repent.

Representative ALCEE HASTINGS (Democrat, Florida): And if we were to be in sack cloth and ashes, they would want a piece of the sack cloth and half of the ashes. I respect those persons but I refuse personally to let the media drive any of us into making us be bad people.

OVERBY: Both bills were voted out last week by the House Judiciary Committee. That panel's chairman, John Conyers of Michigan, told the Rules Committee members that the lobby reform bill isn't perfect. But he said that all factions got to weigh in on it, and that's what took so long.

Representative JOHN CONYERS (Democrat, Michigan): This bill could have been discussed until hell freezes over. We were due in February, March, April, May. The media is now beginning to say, was the Congress serious about it?

OVERBY: Just how serious Congress is won't really be known for some time yet. Whatever the House approves would have to be reconciled with the Senate bill from January. So the Democrats' commitment to ethics reform is sure to be tested yet again.

Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington.

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