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New Congress Makes Ethics Reform a Priority


One of the first orders of business for the new congress with its Democratic majority is changing how the people's business is will be conducted. VOA's Brian Padden reports on ethics and lobbying reform bills that advocates hope will change the change both the culture and the image of Congress.

Democratic leaders, such as the new Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, have put ethics and lobbying reform at the top of their legislative agenda. The first act of this new congress: a ban on gifts and meals and travel from lobbyists. They say voters sent a strong message for change after a string of mostly Republican-related scandals erupted over the last year. These include:

"The truth is I broke the law,” said Republican Congressman Randy "Duke" Cunningham, who resigned from Congress after pleading guilty to taking more than $2 million in bribes from defense contractors.

Lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who took an estimated $85 million in fees from Indian casinos and was accused of illegally giving gifts and making campaign donations to legislators in return for votes.

"I have done nothing wrong" said powerful Republican Congressman Tom Delay who was directly implicated in the Abramoff case. While he maintained his innocence, he was forced to resign from Congress.

And Bob Ney, another Republican congressman, also resigned from Congress after admitting to criminal charges in the Abramoff investigation.

Democrats have also had their problems. Democratic Congressman William Jefferson was also the target of a bribery investigation after allegedly accepting $100,000. He has so far survived the investigation and even recently won re-election to Congress.

Brian Pallasch is a lobbyist for the American Society of Civil Engineers, and president of the American League of Lobbyists. He says the proposed legislation is an overreaction to past abuse.

"In one sense the system is working in that we are finding people who are not following the rules and they are being punished for not following those rules. So we would focus first on the fact that you need to enforce the current rules."

But Joan Claybrook, President of Public Citizen, a consumer advocacy group says ethics reform is needed. "I think that it is very important to have the robust engagement of debate that lobbying involves. What isn't good is to have lobbyists give, you know, entertainment tickets free of charge to members of Congress, to take them out to endless dinners -- $200 to $300 dinners -- and supply them, to take them on their private corporate jets to different places where they have to go to travel."

Claybrook not only supports the ban on gifts and travel but also supports the creation of an office of Public Integrity to enforce the rules, and ultimately public funding of elections to dilute the influence of large corporations in political campaigns. These issues will be considered later in the year.

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