WASHINGTON—Red-faced and reeling last winter over a growing bribery scandal, Congress vowed to crack down on ethics.
But the message from Capitol Hill this spring has sounded more like the punch line of an old "Saturday Night Live" skit: "Never mind."
The House of Representatives and the Senate passed lobbying reform bills as promised. The Senate's is slightly tougher than the House version, but neither has the brass knuckles that lawmakers said were needed back in January after Jack Abramoff, once a high-flying lobbyist with close ties to the Republican leadership, pleaded guilty to influence-peddling.
A committee of House and Senate members will take up both bills to find a compromise, but reform advocates aren't optimistic that tough new rules will emerge.
"The great disappearing act" is how Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona described the weak ethical guidelines that eventually emerged.
Senators and House members can still fly on corporate jets, take trips paid for by private groups and leave Congress for plum jobs with industries and groups that they helped with government contracts and other favors.
"Too many members are addicted to the financial perks and benefits they receive from lobbyists and other influence seekers and have been unwilling to give them up to address corruption," said Fred Wertheimer, the president of Democracy 21, a nonpartisan congressional watchdog group.
Both bills tighten some disclosure rules on lobbyists, requiring that they file reports on their Capitol Hill contacts quarterly instead of twice yearly. And both shed more sunshine on "earmarks," which allow lawmakers to set aside money for certain projects anonymously.
"There is no question that this bill, no matter what people say about it, represents progress," Republican Rep. David Dreier of California, who managed the legislation, said during the House floor debate last month.
Critics, however, said Congress had misread the public's mood for change after learning that Abramoff had accompanied lawmakers on golfing trips to Scotland and other locales, treated them to luxury seats at a Washington sports arena and plied them with costly meals at his restaurant near Capitol Hill.
"This is light-years away from where the country wanted Congress to go," said Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon. "If ever there was a time after the Abramoff scandals to make fundamental changes, this would be it."
Even some Republicans are worried that their party blew it, especially with midterm elections next fall and approval ratings for President Bush and the Republican Congress in the cellar.
"We missed an opportunity," said Republican Rep. Kenny Hulshof of Missouri. "The bill was inadequate. We need to continue to push forward, not just because of what might happen between now and the election, but because it's the right thing to do. We should hold ourselves to a higher standard."
Congress has never tackled ethics reform without a lot of kicking and screaming, and usually does so only when scandal has tarnished its image.
The latest attempt began in January, when House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., called for banning privately sponsored travel.
He obviously was reading the polls. A Washington Post-ABC News survey a few days after Abramoff's guilty plea found that nearly 60 percent of the public said the case reflected "widespread corruption" in the capital. Only 52 percent said lawmakers were as honest as the average American.
Democrats rolled out a campaign slogan about the Republican rule of Congress—"culture of corruption"—that soon became a party mantra. But some Democrats are under a cloud, too.
The reform bandwagon quickly lost momentum, though, as some Republicans complained that Congress was overreacting. It slowed, ironically, as the legal and political heat grew hotter:
_ Republican Rep. Bob Ney of Ohio, a powerful House committee chairman, came under scrutiny because of his relationship with Abramoff. So did several former aides to Ney and former Rep. Tom DeLay, R-Texas.
_ DeLay, a close Abramoff ally and the former House majority leader, already had been indicted in Texas on unrelated campaign money-laundering charges. He resigned from Congress this month.
_ Former Republican Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham of California pleaded guilty to taking at least $2.4 million in bribes from defense contractors and got an eight-year sentence.
_ Democratic Rep. William Jefferson of Louisiana faced a probe for possible influence-peddling. The FBI found $90,000 in questionable cash in his freezer.
_ Rep. Alan Mollohan of West Virginia gave up his seat as the ranking Democrat on the House ethics committee after federal investigators began looking into his personal finances.
_ Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, a Tennessee Republican, has been under investigation since last year for possible insider trading related to his stake in his family's hospital company.
"There are at least half a dozen possible criminal indictments still hanging out," said Mike Surrusco, who directs ethics campaigns for Common Cause, a nonpartisan political-watchdog group. "I don't know that these guys have really braced themselves for that. The approval ratings for Congress are already in the tank. What's going to happen when voters go to the polls? They may pay the price even if they personally haven't done anything."
To read the bills online:
For the House bill, go to http://thomas.loc.gov and "Search Bill Text" for bill number HR 4975. Then click on "H.R.4975.EH."
For the Senate bill, go to http://thomas.loc.gov and "Search Bill Text" for bill number S 2349. Then click on "S.2349.ES."
(Goldstein covers Washington for The Kansas City Star.).
(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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