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Stevens Raid May Boost Ethics Reform

Supporters of an ethics and lobbying reform package hitting the House floor today received one more symbolic shot in the arm yesterday when federal agents raided the Alaska home of Sen. Ted Stevens, the longest serving Republican in chamber history, as part of a broadening corruption investigation in the Frontier State.

Authorities and the media are seen at the home of U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska (AP Photo/Al Grillo)

While the full allegations of impropriety aren't entirely clear, Stevens is under investigation for ties to an energy services company whose former CEO pleaded guilty in early May to spreading around more than $400,000 in bribes to state lawmakers and other unnamed elected officials.

"It reminds people one more time, it underscores the need for lobbying reform," Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), one of the lead sponsors of the legislation, told Capitol Briefing Monday evening.

The bill, which has been blocked from the normal route of a House-Senate conference by Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) over objections that it's not strong enough on earmark reform, will be voted on today in the House. Then the same measure will be voted on later this week by the Senate. Despite complaints from critics it doesn't go far enough in some areas, it is without question the most sweeping reform package since the Watergate era.

Specifically, the bill will ingrain a ban on gifts from lobbyists to lawmakers and staff; bars firms from hiring spouses or other immediate family of lawmakers to directly lobby their family member/congressman; denies federal pensions to members of Congress who are convicted of corruption charges related to official duties; requires congressional sponsors of earmarks, those provisions specifically inserted into bills to benefit a narrow interest, be fully identified 48 hours before legislation is voted on.

However, the bill unveiled this week does have one gaping loophole: staffers and members leaving the House won't face a single new impediment moving through the revolving door to K Street. Former senators will face tougher restrictions when they depart Capitol Hill, with a new two-year cooling-off period that prohibits them from lobbying their former colleagues in the upper chamber for that entire time. That's double the current one-year lobbying ban after departing the Senate.

Former senior Senate staff will still face a one-year cooling-off period, but their lobbying prohibition during that time will now cover the entire Senate. This is a much tougher provision because senior aides-turned lobbyists are currently prohibited from lobbying only their most recent former office for a year, while they can immediately begin lobbying every other Senate office and the entire House.

But in the House, no new limitations are placed on their path to riches on K Street - which is particularly ironic because most of Abramoff's graft took place by wooing House Republicans and hiring their former aides to do his bidding.

Former House members face the same one-year cooling off period for lobbying that chamber, and former senior House aides face the same one-year ban on lobbying just their most recent boss. In addition, "senior staff" is still defined as only those aides making 75 percent or more of a member's salary (which would currently be more than $124,000 based on the annual salary of more than $165,000 for lawmakers.)

While top Senate aides such as chiefs of staff and legislative directors usually make more than $120,000, that pay scale is rare in many House offices. Take New Jersey, for example, which has 13 members in its House delegation. A review of the most recent financial reports on LegiStorm shows that only a half dozen House staffers would be considered "senior staff" under the law, while the remainder - including seven chiefs of staff for House members - could immediately begin lobbying their former boss the forst day they walked into a K Street firm.

Of the Garden State's two senators, five current aides would meet the "senior" threshold and be banned from lobbying the entire chamber for one year.

Van Hollen was pushing for tougher restrictions on the cooling-off period, hoping to extend it to two years for former members, but was met with stiff resistance from within his own caucus of Democrats. He pledged that the lack of new restrictions on the revolving door in the House does not "undercut" the overall bill.

"You've got to look at the package as a whole," he said.

By Paul Kane  |  July 31, 2007; 12:15 PM ET
Categories:  Ethics and Rules , Senate  
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