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Congress acts on ethics

Both houses of Congress have now acted overwhelmingly to correct some of the practices and abuses of power that the American electorate has demanded be eliminated. The Senate, following similar action by the House, has adopted new rules that ban many of the favors that lobbyists do for lawmakers and put the spotlight on the practice of creating earmarks for their special projects. The Senate, in fact, went beyond the proposals the Democrats campaigned on in the past and the changes the House Democrats recently passed.

The Senate measure was approved by a vote of 96 to 2. It bars members from accepting gifts, meals or trips from lobbyists or the organizations that employ them. It also ends the use by senators of borrowed corporate jets at discount rates. In addition, the Senate measure would prohibit departing senators from negotiating with prospective new employers until after their successors had been elected, and restricts them from lobbying the Senate for two years.

Following the path laid out by the House, the Senate acted to correct the evils of earmarking. Its bill, approved 98 to 00, requires disclosure of who is sponsoring an earmark and the purpose and the cost of the earmark.

Going beyond the House, the Senate bill requires for the first time that lobbyists disclose their roles in holding campaign fundraisers, soliciting campaign contributions and bundling checks from clients. Bundling is the practice of pooling individual contributions from various people in order to maximize the political influence of the bundler. All of the checks collected in this way are delivered to candidates on the same day.

PACs and political party committees that already have given the maximum allowed by law often bundle individual contributions as a way of delivering even more money to candidates. It is one of the most valuable favors lobbyists do for lawmakers.

The Senate measure really undermines the roles that lobbyists play to influence the lawmakers. We do have to caution that a great many of the lobbyists are former congressmen and know all the tricks of the trade. They likely will find ways to circumvent the newly established rules designed to curb their influence.

The Senate bill does include one measure that is not in the House bill and hopefully will be included when the final bill emerges from conference. It is not significant in terms of dollars but is important from an ethical standpoint.

By a vote of 87 to 0, the Senate voted to deny federal pension benefits to any member of Congress convicted of fraud or corruption charges. There is no valid reason that those found guilty should receive their pensions.

Former Rep. Randy Cunningham, now in jail for selling earmarked defense contracts for gifts and cash valued at millions of dollars, is receiving his federal pension of $40,000 a year. Ludicrous. Unfortunately, even with this new provision, Cunningham will continue to receive his pension, as would other lawmakers who have been convicted of the designated charges. Taxpayers rightfully are up in arms about this giveaway. The Cunningham case did have one positive effect -- it was responsible for bipartisan calls for more disclosure of earmarks, which last year cost the government $64 billion for the 12,000 earmarks lawmakers had designated. There most certainly will be fewer earmarks now.

The action by both the House and the Senate on these ethical matters is a major step that reflects the concerns of many citizens. What is surprising and encouraging is the overwhelming number of votes the measures received in both houses of Congress.

Murray B. Light is the former editor of The Buffalo News

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