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First The Scandal, Now The Reform

House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., holds a press conference with other House GOP members to summarize GOP efforts before Thanksgiving recess on Capitol Hill in Washington, Friday, Nov. 18, 2005.
AP
Most everyone on Capitol Hill agrees ethics reform is needed, but there's plenty of heat over how to do it. Republican leaders unveiled their reform plan Tuesday, and were promptly blasted by Democrats, who are to unveil their own proposal Wednesday.

Outlining the GOP plan for the House was Speaker Dennis Hastert, who called for new restrictions on gifts from lobbyists, in response to the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal that already has claimed two Republican leaders and raised GOP fears about this year's elections.

"As Speaker of this House, I want to make one thing clear: it is not acceptable for anyone to break the rules of the House or the law," said Hastert. "If they have, they should be held to account."

Hastert says the legislation being proposed by House leaders would end the practice of lobbyists footing the bill for representatives' lunches and arranging privately funded "fact-finding" trips to resorts.

Not even the House gym is exempt from the GOP's reform plan: lawmakers-turned-lobbyists would be banned from the gym and from access to the House floor, where they have been known to make deals in hopes of changing votes.

Hastert also said, after an hour-and-a-half conference call with House Republicans on Tuesday, that he did not have unanimity on changes to lobbying rules, in particular a proposal to ban all privately funded travel.

Rep. John Shadegg, R-Ariz., who is running to succeed Tom DeLay as majority leader, put out a statement that "many trips are truly educational, and I believe a complete ban on all private travel would be an overreaction that doesn't get to the root of the problem."

Under current rules, approved interest groups and think tanks can finance travel for speeches, meetings and fact-finding missions. Lobbyists are already banned from paying for such trips.

Members of Congress also can accept only those gifts valued at under $50, with a ceiling of $100 from any one individual in a year.

House GOP leaders say their gift ban would be "significantly stronger" but would not prevent members from accepting a baseball hat or a T-shirt from visiting middle-school students.

Hastert said ethics reform should also include the issue of spending by "527s" tax-exempt partisan groups – such as MoveOn.org and Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. In the last election such groups spent $544 million, according to one estimate, and tended to favor Democrats.

reports that the so-called "culture of corruption" is going to be a huge issue in the 2006 midterm elections.

"They knew that they had to grab this reform mantle or they would be steamrolled by the Democrats on the corruption issue," Borger said.

House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi said that "for more than a decade, Speaker Hastert and House Republicans have benefited from their systemic culture of corruption at the expense of the American people. Today, the Republicans' so-called lobbying reform proposal sticks a Band-Aid on a gaping wound."

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, for his part, said the idea of Republicans reforming themselves "is like asking John Gotti to clean up organized crime."

Nonetheless, there are some partnerships in the Senate between GOP and Democratic lawmakers interested in tackling the ethics reform issue.