WASHINGTON -- An overwhelming majority of senators approved new rules yesterday to assure Americans that they are serious about scaling back the influence of Washington lobbyists.
The Senate completed its lobbying legislation nearly four months after the powerful former lobbyist Jack Abramoff sent ripples through Washington by pleading guilty to fraud, tax evasion and conspiracy to bribe public officials. A federal judge yesterday sentenced Mr. Abramoff to nearly six years in prison in a fraud case related to his purchase of a Florida casino boat line in 2000.
The revelations about Mr. Abramoff's illegal activities and his unfettered access to members of Congress -- coupled with public outrage over the admission by former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham, R-Calif., that he accepted $2.4 million in bribes from defense contractors in exchange for legislative action -- created a significant image problem for Congress.
Senators yesterday said they were eager to act before further indictments in the ongoing lobbying corruption probe.
Though the Senate's legislation passed 90-8, it was dismissed as "window-dressing" by several of the chamber's key players on ethics reform, including Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Sen. Russell Feingold, D-Wis.
The legislation remains a long way from becoming law, because the House has moved more slowly in assembling its package. House leaders already are under fire from government watchdog groups for putting forward what the groups view as far weaker legislation than the Senate's.
In the Senate version, a majority of members rejected the creation of an independent Office of Public Integrity, which would have policed interactions between senators and lobbyists. And to the dismay of Mr. McCain and others, Senate leaders from both parties refused to allow votes on dozens of other amendments.
The Senate did not vote on an amendment, for example, that would have forced lawmakers to pay the market price for their flights on corporate planes, which are often lent by companies lobbying the senators. Senators and their staff members now pay the price of a first-class plane ticket.
Sens. McCain and Tom Coburn, R-Okla., said a major flaw in the legislation is that it does not go far enough in restricting lawmakers' ability to slip their special projects into major spending bills, often at the request of lobbyists. Mr. Cunningham used that practice -- known as "earmarking" -- to reward companies that were showering him with money and gifts.
"This was an exceptional opportunity, given the Abramoff scandal, to get a lot of things done, and we didn't get them done," said Mr. Feingold. "But [in February], I said you could already hear the sound of backpedaling in the halls of Congress -- and that's what happened here."
Yet the bipartisan team of lawmakers who authored the legislation -- Sens. Trent Lott, R-Miss., Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Christopher Dodd and Joseph I. Lieberman, both D-Conn. -- said the bill represented the most significant changes to lobbying rules in a decade.
Pennsylvania senators, Arlen Specter and Rick Santorum, voted for the bill, and Mr. Santorum said criticisms of it were unfair. "This is a much tougher bill than I think anyone would have anticipated when we started this process," he said.
The Senate legislation will bar senators from accepting meals from lobbyists and force them for the first time to get pre-approval from the Senate ethics panel for trips paid for by private entities, which was how Mr. Abramoff arranged many of his lavish golf junkets for members and congressional staff.
Senators who leave Congress for the lobbying world will no longer have exclusive access to the Senate floor and must wait two years instead of one before lobbying former colleagues. Senate staffers-turned-lobbyists will face a new restriction as well; they must wait one year before lobbying not just the office where they worked but also the entire Senate in that "cooling-off period."
Under the legislation, lobbyists will have to file reports four times a year disclosing the companies they represent and how much money they are earning for those activities. Senators doubled the maximum fine, to $100,000, for lobbyists who do not comply with reporting requirements and are asking the comptroller general to audit lobbying records.
Maeve Reston can be reached at email@example.com or 202-488-3479.