Senate Due to Take Up Ethics Bill

The Senate is expected to take up a measure that would change the way lawmakers and lobbyists do business. Some Republicans plan to vote against the bill — even as one of their own, Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens, is under federal investigation for possible ethics violations.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

We'll bring you more on that story as we learn more. And we're also following this story this morning. The Senate today is expected to take up a measure that would change the way that lawmakers and lobbyists do business. Some Republicans plan to vote against the bill - even as one of their own, Alaska Senator Ted Stevens, is under federal investigation for possible ethics violations.

NPR's Brian Naylor reports.

BRIAN NAYLOR: The bill addresses two overlapping areas that have gotten some lawmakers into trouble in recent years - lobbying and the special-interest spending known as earmarks. The measure has been lavishly praised by outside reform groups.

Here is Craig Holman of Public Citizen.

Mr. CRAIG HOLMAN (Public Citizen): There is more in this bill than I had ever expected Congress to step forward and approve. It's dealing with the most important source of corruption, and that's the lobbyist-money-lawmaker nexus.

NAYLOR: That nexus has led to the prosecution of several lawmakers, including Congressman Randy Duke Cunningham and Bob Nay, who are now in jail for accepting bribes and gifts for earmarks and special favors. Former lobbyist Jack Abramoff is also serving time on corruption charges.

Under the bill before the Senate, neither lobbyists nor corporations could provide gifts, meals or travel to lawmakers. Lobbyists would have to report their activities on behalf of clients more often. And members of Congress would have to report when lobbyists gather campaign contributions for them - a process known as bundling.

Public Citizen's Holman says the practice came about as a way to get around the bend on contributions from corporations.

Mr. HOLMAN: Their lobbyists will then collect individual contributions from all the different executives and colleagues and present this bundled set of checks that could amount to a quarter million dollars to the lawmaker.

NAYLOR: Lobbyists say the bill, while far-reaching, won't change the way they do business all that much, beyond creating more paperwork. Brian Pallasch is a lobbyist with the American Society of Civil Engineers and president of the American League of Lobbyists.

Pallasch says he doesn't think the proposed new law will make it that much harder to work with lawmakers.

Mr. BRIAN PALLASCH (President, American League of Lobbyists): In general I think lobbyists will be able to get their points across to members of Congress and represent the interests that they want to represent.

NAYLOR: The other big change in the bill is the requirement that earmarks - the special-interest spending that's proliferated in recent years - be publicly disclosed ahead of time. It's earmarks that have gotten most lawmakers into trouble recently, including Ted Stevens, whose home was raided by federal agents earlier this week.

But a few senators say the earmark disclosure provision isn't strong enough, and that it's open to partisan loopholes. Among those planning to vote no today is South Carolina Republican Jim DeMint.

Senator JIM DeMINT (Republican, South Carolina): All this lobbying is not for one vote. The lobbying is for getting millions of dollars directed somewhere around the country. And if it continues to be a secretive or last-minute process where we vote and then we find out, which is what's going to happen, then we haven't really improved that anything.

NAYLOR: DeMint says earmarks are the core problem with corruption in Congress. But backers of the bill say that while it may not be perfect, it is a major improvement over the status quo. And they believed that in the current climate, it should win easy approval.

Brian Naylor, NPR News, the Capitol.

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