Politics Round-Up: Ethics on the Hill The U.S. House overwhelmingly passed a lobbying reform bill Tuesday. Meanwhile, Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens, the longest-serving Republican in Senate history, was busy making ethics headlines of his own.
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Politics Round-Up: Ethics on the Hill

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Politics Round-Up: Ethics on the Hill

Politics Round-Up: Ethics on the Hill

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From NPR News, this is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Farai Chideya.

A lot of people want to clean up American politics. Now, the politicians themselves are getting in on the act. Yesterday, the U.S. House overwhelmingly passed a lobbying reform bill. Is it the right bill, though? And will it become law? Meanwhile, Senator Ted Stevens, the longest-serving Republican in Senate history, was busy making ethics headlines on his own.

For more, we've got Robert Traynham, a GOP strategist. He teaches at George Washington University and runs his own political consulting firm. Also with us, Donna Brazile, a nationally syndicated columnist. She teaches at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.

Welcome, folks. And, Robert, let me get right to you. When have we seen lobbying reform legislation before and what good did it do, if any?

Professor ROBERT TRAYNHAM (George Washington University; GOP Strategist): Hi, Farai. The last time we saw lobbying reform was actually, ironically, March of 2006 when Republicans on the House and Senate did pass comprehensive lobbying reform that basically did almost the same exact thing as the House passed yesterday. It provides for greater disclosure. It banned certain gifts. It closed the revolving door. It basically - hopefully - it basically includes greater disclosure when it comes to individuals trying to influence the United States Congress.

CHIDEYA: So, Donna, this legislation requires disclosure of earmarks. What the heck is an earmark? What do people on Capitol Hill put in these things?

Professor DONNA BRAZILE (Georgetown University, Washington, D.C.; Syndicated Columnist): It's an item normally attached to an appropriation bill that designates a particular - a specific amount of money for a project that a member normally attached to that bill. Over the last couple of years, we've found that members of Congress have abused the earmark system, often bypassing the committee process - the oversight process and placing these items directly on spending bills.

CHIDEYA: Now, Donna, I'm going to stay with you for a second. There are a few interesting bits of verbiage in this bill. Today's Washington Post sums up one of them saying, quote, "a prohibition on any earmark that would financially benefit lawmakers, their immediate families, their staff or the staff's immediate families was altered to say that the ban would apply to any earmark that advances a lawmaker's pecuniary interest. Critics say that would mean the benefit would have to be direct for the measure to be prohibited." So does this really mean, look, we want to say reform but we don't really mean it, and where's the money?

Prof. BRAZILE: Well, look, if you remember the Jack Abramoff scandal, which really took the lid off the Capitol and exposed a lot of hanky-panky going on on Capitol Hill, this historic ethics bill will allow the public for the first time to see what members are attaching to legislation. And if members have any financial fiduciary relationship with, say, a particular company or a particular entity that may indirectly or directly benefit them or their family.

Remember the Randall "Duke" Cunningham episode, where he was directing earmarks to a company that later supplied him with, not just remodeling equipment for his home, but maybe in - I mean, he's in prison now, but he was alleged and then indicted for taking bribes. So this is a cleaner bill. This is a new way to get Washington to finally get in line with the rest of the American people, and to spin out taxpayers' money in a very honest and smart way.

CHIDEYA: Well, Robert, before I move on to talk about another specific ethics scandal - that one of Senator Ted Stevens. There was some real tension in the House over a one-year cooling-off period...

Prof. TRAYNHAM: Mm-hmm.

CHIDEYA: ...where former members have to wait a year before becoming lobbyists. Why was that such a big issue?

Prof. TRAYNHAM: Well, frankly, it's a big issue simply because former members of Congress obviously want a member or they want to lobby their colleagues just as soon as they possibly can. Look, there has to be a balance here. When a member of Congress loses his or her seat, or when they choose not to run for reelection again, they have a right to be able to earn a living. And, obviously, because of their area of expertise and because of their experience, most former members of Congress do just, what? They lobby.

And so there's always this fine balance here as to making sure that we're holding the Congress accountable, but also making sure that we're not in -hindering a member of Congress or a former member of the Congress ability to be able to find work. So what the Congress did today or yesterday was to try to strike a balance between saying, look, there's no question about it. There needs to be a cooling-off period. A former member of Congress needs to distance him or herself from the House, if you are, or from the Senate.

But we also need to recognize that number one, everyone's going to be a former member of Congress at some point. But also, number two, and even more importantly, we also have to make sure that we're not going to cut this person's, you know, livelihood off, if you will.

CHIDEYA: Well, Robert, I want to move with you to Senator Ted Stevens. There's a big probe into his ties into big business.

Prof. TRAYNHAM: Mm-hmm.

CHIDEYA: Who is he exactly? What's his political record and what about these allegations that he's gotten cozy with an energy services company that may have helped him to remodel his house? Donna was just talking about the Duke Cunningham case, which also had to do with your home, I guess, feathering your nest?

Prof. TRAYNHAM: Well, you know, what's interesting, Farai, as you mentioned a few moments ago, Senator Ted Stevens is a Republican from Alaska. He is the longest-serving senator - Republican senator, that is. He has represented Alaska ever since it became a state in the late 1950s. And he is a bit of a curmudgeon around Capitol Hill. He is known for fighting for his state. Alaska has always been known for getting a lot of pork from Washington, D.C. He is a fighter for his state. He always speaks up for his state.

And so, Senator Stevens is a force to be reckoned with. He is basically the Republican version of Robert Berg, where basically he has said, on more than one occasion, that Alaska is a very distant state in terms from a geographical standpoint. And also, too, he's always said that Alaska has always been underrepresented in the United States Congress. So he is known for - to be a champion, if you will, for Alaska.

That's number one. Number two, ironically, he also, just most recently, was the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, which arguably is the most powerful committee on Capitol Hill. And obviously when the Republicans lost the Senate, he then became the ranking member on the Senate Commerce Committee, which also is a very important committee.

Senator Stevens is known as a workaholic. He is known as someone that understands the legislative game better than anyone else. And it's unfortunate, if in fact this is true, it's a very, very sad news, if in fact there is something going on a little fishy when it comes to him perhaps playing a little favorite with the home state business.

CHIDEYA: Donna, you have here, not only the raid on his house but just fundraising expenses listed in his latest report to the Federal Election Commission include more than $200 to Island Smoke Shop in Key Largo, Florida; $550 in tips to the waiters, front desk and bartenders at a manor in California; money spent at poker bargains. He has a long record of expenses. Now, he, in an ironic twist, threatened to block the ethics reform bill when it comes to the Senate. Is that, Donna, just stupid exposure for him at a time of need?

Prof. BRAZILE: He is not the only senator that has threatened to block the landmark ethics reform bill. Senator Lott is still trying to decide if he will vote against it or whip against it. Senator DeMint of South Carolina is also questioning the bill.

But, look, back to Ted Stevens, I've had some run-ins with Ted Stevens. He is a very powerful member of the United States Senate. He knows his way around and he's under investigation not just, you know, from the FBI, but the IRS is also looking into his finances. The Interior Department is looking into some of the earmarks. Just recently, a Senate clerk who maintained Senator Stevens' personal financial records was called before a federal grand jury.

So this is going to be a major investigation of Senator Ted Stevens. So I would hope that Ted Stevens would do what we've always called on other members when they're under investigation - step aside. Step off the Appropriations Committee because after all he's on the appropriations subcommittee that oversees the Justice Department, and allow the federal authorities to complete their investigation in a timely fashion.

CHIDEYA: Let's - let's just withdraw for a second. Robert, pull back. So you're listening to this, listening to our show and you say, oh, my gosh. And this is the devil's advocate speaking, but a lot of people feel this way. Wow, shocker, Washington is corrupt. What can people actually do in order to ensure that they get the good government that they deserve?

Prof. TRAYNHAM: Well, I think, first and foremost, I don't think Washington is corrupt. There's always going to be some bad apples unfortunately in the barrel. The majority of Congress people that serve the United State Congress are good, honorable, decent people. I think we should say that first and foremost.

But secondly and arguably, just as important, Americans have a right for accountability with their members of Congress. They also, obviously, have a right to question the accountability or question the motive or the actions of their member of Congress. And frankly, the American people have the most powerful weapon that God has ever created, in my opinion, and that's the right to vote.

And, if in fact, they believe that their member of Congress is, quote and unquote, "corrupt," they have the right and they should have the right. And they should be empowered to not only vote against that individual, but also give money to the opponent, as well as obviously lobby on behalf of another candidate.

So, my point is, is that, what the American people need to understand, first and foremost, is that their government is a good government. It's a very transparent government and, overwhelmingly, their members of Congress are good, honorable, decent people.

CHIDEYA: Donna, who's protecting the citizens and how can citizenships protect themselves?

Ms. BRAZILE: There are many citizen watchdog groups out there that look into these financial disclosure forms. They review the FEC records to see what industry is contributing to these members of Congress, but the - Robert is absolutely right. We have the power in this democracy to hold our elected officials accountable, not just in Washington, but back home as well.

We pay them. We should also tell them that we want better government, better representation. And we really want them to get things done while they're here in Washington, D.C.

CHIDEYA: Briefly, when you have a situation where so many people, either have never voted or are dispirited and discouraged voters, what will turn that around? Just quickly, Robert and then Donna.

Prof. TRAYNHAM: I think what will turn it around is greater access and accountability. I think what you're seeing right now with Senator Obama and Senator Clinton and also, perhaps, maybe Senator Thompson, some other folks on Republican side is even more accessibility through YouTube and through Facebook and through the innovative technologies that we currently live in where frankly, younger voters are saying, you know what? This person actually is trying to communicate to me in ways that I like to be communicated with, in other words, through text messaging and through YouTube, as I mentioned before.

So I think, finally we're breaking through. I think, finally, a lot of young folks out there are saying, you know what? Finally, they get it. Finally, they understand exactly what I'm relating to.

CHIDEYA: Donna...

Ms. BRAZILE: Well, know your power, they work for us. Period. That's it.

CHIDEYA: All right. Well, that's a great wrap-up line. Donna and Robert, thank you both so much for joining us.

Ms. BRAZILE: Thank you.

Prof. TRAYNHAM: Thank you.

CHIDEYA: Robert Traynham is a GOP strategist. He teaches at George Washington University and runs his own political consulting firm. And Donna Brazile is a nationally syndicated columnist. She teaches at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. Both joined me from NPR's D.C. headquarters.

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