In the wake of the Jack Abramoff scandal and the questionable ethics practices of congressmen such as Tom DeLay and Randy “Duke” Cunningham, the American people sent a strong message to Congress that they wanted stricter ethics requirements for members and their staffs. I am pleased that on Jan. 1, 2008 those changes took effect.
Each chamber sets its own rules, but the Legislative Transparency and Accountability Act is a strong, bipartisan ethics and lobbying reform law that represents a significant change in the way elected officials, their families, senior staff, and lobbyists do business.
One of the most important aspects of the law for both the Senate and House is to significantly increase the transparency of how “earmarks” are included in legislation. In the Senate, rules now require that the sponsors of all earmarks (including limited tax and tariff benefits) be identified on the Internet at least 48 hours before a vote. The bill requires Senators to certify that they and their immediate family members have no financial interest in the earmark. The bill also makes it difficult to add earmarks during the conference committee process.
It also requires that conference reports – where differences are worked out between Senate and House versions of a bill — be made available for public review on the Internet 48 hours before a Senate vote. It also ends the practice of secret Senate holds that can kill legislation or nominations, and it requires all Senate committees and subcommittees to post video recordings, audio recordings, or transcripts of all public meetings on the Internet.
This law makes needed reforms to the lobbying industry as well. It prohibits lobbyists and their clients from giving gifts, including free meals and tickets, to Senators and their staffs. It requires Senators to pay charter rates for trips on private planes. The law prohibits Senators and their staff from accepting multi-day private travel from registered lobbyists, and it requires much greater transparency for lobbyist bundling and political campaign fund activity. It also increases civil and criminal penalties for lobbyists who break the law.
The ethics reform law also takes major steps in slowing the revolving door between members of Congress, staff, and the private sector. It strengthens the revolving door restrictions by increasing the cooling-off period for former Senators from one to two years before they can lobby Congress, and prohibits former senior Senate staff from lobbying contacts within the entire Senate for one year. It eliminates floor, parking, and gym privileges for former Members who become lobbyists.
Former Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis’ famous dictum still holds true today: “Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.” This new law will help restore the confidence of the American people that their congressional leaders have their best interests in mind when they vote on legislation.