House Imposes New Ethics Rules

by Brian Gumm, 1/9/2007

On Jan. 4, even before debate began on the Democrats' promised first 100 hours agenda, the House, by a 430-1 vote, approved rules changes aimed at ending the "culture of corruption" of the past Congress. The changes address relations between lobbyists and members of the House and are meant to curb abuses revealed in last year's scandals involving convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff and several members of the House. On the next day, the House approved additional rules changes.The new rules prohibit House members and their staff or designates from accepting meals and gifts from lobbyists or organizations that "retain or employ" them, or from the agent of a foreign principal. This eliminates the former maximum gift values of $49.99 per gift and $99.99 per year, but these amounts will still apply to gifts from non-lobbyists. Existing exemptions to the gift rules, such as widely attended events or personal friendships, will still apply, although many will be obsolete because the new ban extends to a lobbyist's employer. Employees who are not lobbyists can give gifts under the limits if they are not reimbursed by their employers.

The most extensive changes to the rules involve congressional travel. The new rules provide that, beginning March 1, members of the House:

  • cannot accept travel funded by lobbyists or the entity that retains or hires them, or a foreign agent, except for one-day/one-night trips to specific sites, where there is "de minimis" lobbyist involvement. The ethics committee will write rules to govern these situations, which are meant to allow trips to give speeches and attend forums or panel discussions.
  • may not travel with a lobbyist present on any segment of the trip. It is not clear if this also applies to the destination event if the lobbyist travels separately.
  • cannot pay for non-commercial, non-charter air travel from personal or campaign funds, or use their official allowance for these private jet flights.

Travel expenses that can be paid for by non-lobbyist groups include:

  • trips paid for by colleges and universities
  • pre-approved trips paid for by non-lobbyist organizations where the expenses are reasonable and the event is official. The sponsor of the trip will be required to certify they have met the requirements for permissible travel, and the House member must file a report within 15 days of the trip, which will be publicly disclosed by the clerk of the House.

The House ethics package also includes a provision meant to end the notorious "K Street Project," where members of Congress used their influence to force lobbying firms and others to consider political affiliation in hiring decisions. The new rule prohibits members "from threatening official retaliation against private firms that hire employees that do not share the Member's partisan political affiliation." The package also requires House employees to participate in annual training on the ethics rules.

The Senate's approach will be similar, but changes are included in legislation instead of new rules. S. 1, sponsored by Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), is based on the ethics bill passed by the Senate last year (S. 2349). However, it will be tougher, calling for a complete ban on gifts and travel paid by lobbyists, rather than increased disclosure. It also includes changes to the Lobbying Disclosure Act (LDA) aimed at increased transparency, including disclosure of grassroots lobbying by lobbyists and firms already required to disclose under LDA. (The House will be taking up similar legislative lobbying reforms, probably in February.)

The Senate is expected to begin a week-long debate on these issues Jan. 9. Amendments to strengthen the bill are expected, with Sens. Barack Obama (D-IL) and Russell Feingold (D-WI) poised to introduce their own bill. It would have stricter travel rules and call for creation of an Office of Public Integrity, which would be an independent enforcement body.

The LDA changes would increase the frequency of reporting and make reports available to the public electronically. The grassroots disclosure provision is aimed at making large-scale efforts to engage the public on federal legislation more transparent. It would require groups already registered under LDA because of their direct lobbying expenses and firms that spend over $25,000 in a quarter conducting such campaigns on behalf of clients to disclose grassroots lobbying costs.

This proposal has come under fire from some conservative free speech and direct mail operations, but their analysis misinterprets the bill. For more information, see OMB Watch's analysis of the proposal.