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Senate Panel Votes Against Plan To Change Lobbying, Ethics Laws

By Sheryl Gay Stolberg


Senators backed away Thursday from expansive lobbying law changes for the second time this week, overwhelmingly voting down a proposal to create an independent office to investigate ethics abuses in Congress.

The plan for a new Office of Public Integrity was rejected, 11-5, by the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee. Opponents complained it duplicated the work of the Senate Ethics Committee and violated the Constitution, which provides for the House and Senate to set their own rules.

The vote does not mean the idea is dead; backers said they would try to bring it to the full Senate when the chamber takes up lobbying law changes, possibly next week. But the measure’s defeat, coupled with strong disagreements among Republican leaders in the House over what form lobbying legislation should take, suggests the path to changing the way Congress does business will be fraught with obstacles.

The proposal for the Office of Public Integrity would have created an independent office, with a director who had subpoena power. The director, appointed by the Democratic and Republican congressional leadership, would have responsibility for investigating ethics charges, though his decisions could be overruled by a two-thirds vote of the House or Senate ethics committees.

The measure was struck down despite the strong backing of the committee’s Republican chairwoman, Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, and its senior Democrat, Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut. Support was so scant during the debate that as the discussion drew to a close, Collins issued a half-joking plea for help.

“If there are any members of the committee who think there’s some possibility that Sen. Lieberman and I are right,” Collins said, “I would love to hear them speak.”

Instead, the panel adopted legislation that would strengthen disclosure requirements for lobbyists, requiring them to submit more frequent reports of their activities and to do so electronically, in a format that could be easily searched by the press and the public.

The bill would also double from one to two years the so-called cooling-off period during which lawmakers-turned-lobbyists are prohibited from lobbying their former colleagues. And it would extend that cooling-off period to senior Senate aides, who would be barred during that time from lobbying the entire Senate, not just their former bosses, as is the current practice.

The committee also voted, 10-6, to impose new requirements on advocacy groups to report how much they spend lobbying Congress. That provision is aimed at groups like the AARP, which spend millions on television advertisements and other campaigns designed to influence Congress, but do not have to register as lobbyists.

After the meeting, Collins said she thought the panel had produced “a strong bill,” even without the ethics office provision. But government watchdog groups, and some senators, complained afterward that the committee had stripped the meat out of lobbying law changes.