Democrats Counter GOP On Ethics

Congressional Democrats urged a ban on all gifts and travel paid for by lobbyists Wednesday, aiming to seize an issue for the fall elections and taking a shot at Republicans they say have sullied Congress' reputation.

The Democratic proposal also would end the "dead of night" insertion of special interest provisions into legislation.

It's called earmarking, reports

, and no measure is immune from it. Even the bill paying for the war in Iraq was padded with provisions including $850,000 for an education center and public park in Des Moines and $1.5 million for an aviation museum in Seattle.

Earmarks continue to grow, more than tripling in the last ten years, reports Borger.

Democrats offered their proposal a day after Republicans outlined their own lobbying ethics legislation.

Both parties, motivated by the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal, have pledged to make lobbying ethics a top issue when Congress resumes a full schedule next month. Both also blamed the other for trying to take political advantage of the scandal.

"An ethical cloud hangs over the Capitol," said House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, as she outlined the Democratic plan in a Library of Congress hall for about 100 Democratic members of the House and Senate.

The lawmakers lined up to sign a declaration committing them to honest leadership and open government.

Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., said it was commendable that "our friends on the other side of the aisle have suddenly found religion on this topic." But he said the Abramoff scandal, in which the once powerful lobbyist and his clients provided gifts, expensive meals and golf trips to lawmakers, mainly Republicans, could be attributed to "Republican sins and Republican sins alone."

The National Republican Senatorial Committee quickly countered with a 24-page document targeting Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada, entitled "Harry's Hypocrisy and Jack Abramoff."

Reid replied that he had long supported Indian groups, some of which had been clients of Abramoff. But Reid contended that the lobbyist only gave money to Republicans and he had never met Abramoff.

Despite the partisan sniping, the proposals from the two sides have some similarities.

Both the Democratic plan and a proposal offered by House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., on Tuesday would ban or significantly restrict privately funded travel and gifts, and double to two years the waiting period between when a lawmaker leaves office and can become a lobbyist. Both would require more frequent disclosure of lobbying activity.

The Republican measure would bar ex-members-turned-lobbyists from access to the House floor, and would take away the pension of any member convicted of a felony related to his or her official duties.

The Democrats would kill the K Street Project, an initiative backed by former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, that pressured lobbying firms to hire Republicans and fund GOP causes.

About 40 supporters of the liberal group demonstrated Wednesday before the offices of Americans for Tax Reform, a conservative group headed by Grover Norquist, who helped create the K Street Project. Norquist, in a phone interview, said the point of the project was that "you should hire people who agree with and understand the positions of low taxes and less government."

The Democratic plan also contains provisions to end cronyism in the hiring of federal officials, increase competition in federal contracting and require lawmakers to make it known when they are negotiating for private sector jobs.

Clean government groups that have long pressed for lobbying ethics changes greeted the new enthusiasm for legislation with caution.

"Both of the parties' proposals fail to get at the heart of the problem, which is a complete lack of enforcement of the rules in Congress," said Common Cause President Chellie Pingree.

Public Citizen's president Joan Claybrook said both proposals get at some of more obvious abuses perpetrated by Abramoff, but can be characterized as "reform lite" because they don't address the influence of special interest money in politics and the connection between politicians, lobbyists and campaign contributions.