Senate Approves Change in Lobbying Rules

The Senate has approved what some have called the first major change in ethics and lobbying rules in more than 25 years. But others believe the measures don't go far enough. The Senate action comes in response to the scandal involving lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

The U.S. Senate chose to pass lobbying reform on the same day that a high-powered lobbyist was sentenced to prison for one of his crimes. Jack Abramoff stood before a judge in Florida while some lobbying practices were being judged at the capital.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

We'll start our coverage of this story here in Washington, where Abramoff was not the only name on lawmaker's minds. Senators were acting after a Republican congressman, Duke Cunningham, was convicted of corruption. And there's still some question about who else could face prosecution. With that backdrop, senators voted to ban gifts from lobbyists and to require lobbyists to report more frequently on their activities.

Here's NPR's Brian Naylor.

BRIAN NAYLOR reporting:

The vote was 90 to eight. The overwhelming margin, a rare show of bipartisan unity, as noted by the Senate's top Democrat, Harry Reid.

Senator HARRY REID (Democrat, Nevada; Senate Minority Leader): The majority leader and I are seen in the eyes of the public as always being like a couple of big, orange sheaf in a rutting season, running and bashing heads and moving back. And that's what the public sees. But this legislation could not have come to the floor today but for the work that we did together.

NAYLOR: The Senate Republican Leader, Bill Frist, agreed.

Senator BILL FRIST (Republican, Tennessee; Senate Majority Leader): This is not a perfect bill, but this bill is a major step forward. It is a product of working together, Democrat and Republicans.

NAYLOR: What Republicans and Democrats came together on in the Senate are what some are calling the first major changes to its rules regarding lobbying in more than 25 years. Senators could no longer accept gifts or meals from lobbyists. Senators who leave Congress to become lobbyists would be barred from lobbying their former colleagues for two years, twice the current cooling-off period. Lobbyists would have to disclose their contacts with lawmakers quarterly, instead of twice a year.

Senator Susan Collins, a Republican from Maine and one of measure's sponsors, noted the timing of yesterday's vote. It came only a few hours after the catalyst of the Senate's action--former Lobbyist Jack Abramoff was sentenced in a Florida courthouse.

Senator SUSAN COLLINS (Republican, Maine): It was, in fact, the scandals involving Mr. Abramoff and former Representative Cunningham that prompted us to take a harder look at practices that while legal, eroded public confidence in the integrity of our institutions.

NAYLOR: But the measure falls short of what many, including Collins, wanted. Her attempt to create an independent office of public integrity to investigate breaches of Senate rules was overwhelmingly rejected. A proposed ban on privately funded travel was kept off the bill. Outside groups pushing for reform were dissatisfied.

Common Cause President Chellie Pingree calls the measure window dressing.

Ms. CHELLIA PINGREE (President, Common Cause): It doesn't go far enough on a lot of things that I think really need to be changed. So without some enforcement mechanism, I don't see how the system is going to change dramatically. And without breaking some of the links between lobbyists, the money, and the political process, we're just not going to see significant change here.

NAYLOR: But Democratic Senator Chris Dodd of Connecticut saw it differently.

Senator CHRIS DODD (Democrat, Connecticut): This is more than window dressing. There's a $100,000 in civil penalties and fines if you violate these provisions here. That's hardly window dressing.

NAYLOR: The measure also includes provisions that will make it tougher for lawmakers to include secret earmarks, or special interest spending provisions on bills. They will have to be published in advance. The bill would also end the secret holds that senators can place on legislation or nominations. While many of the rules changes affect only the Senate, the measure will have to be reconciled with the House before becoming law. The House is considering its own set of lobby reform measures, but has no timetable for completion.

Brian Naylor, NPR News, the Capitol.

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