Sweet Column: Will Congress pass tough ethics overhaul? McCain says fight very difficult; Emanuel predicts success.

SHARE Sweet Column: Will Congress pass tough ethics overhaul? McCain says fight very difficult; Emanuel predicts success.

Sen. John McCain worries that Congress will continue to resist meaningful lobbying and ethics reform. Rep. Rahm Emanuel is confident that lawmakers learned their lesson — GOP scandals contributed to Democrats taking control of the House and Senate Nov. 7 — and critical changes will be made.

“Lynn, the reason why we’re here, we do not underestimate how hard this is going to be,” McCain (R-Ariz.) said. ”This is going to be very difficult.”

That seemed to be the assessment of the group of lawmakers, all veterans of ethics wars, McCain put together to generate public support for a package of proposals: Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.), Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.), Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), Rep. Martin Meehan (D-Mass.) and Rep. Chris Shays (R-Conn.).

Emanuel (D-Ill.), who behind the scenes is quarterbacking House negotiations–he’s part of the new House leadership team– told me ”it is going to happen because of the election — not because of them.” That said, getting muscular rules and legislative changes will meet resistance from some lawmakers. The push from McCain and his colleagues ”is important to keep the momentum going. Anything having to do with ourselves is tough,” said Emanuel.

Republican leaders resisted finishing work on even a watered-down ethics and lobbying bill, despite the roll call of rogues: Jack Abramoff, Duke Cunningham, Tom DeLay, William Jefferson and Mark Foley. Emanuel and the Democrats made GOP corruption a major issue. There were nine seats where GOP incumbents faced ethical questions and Democrats won eight of them.

The House passed a diluted bill earlier in the year; the Senate advanced better legislation. But the two chambers never got together to meld their versions into one bill to send to President Bush, so nothing happened. A proposal to create an Office of Public Integrity, an independent office to probe ethical allegations, was rejected in the Senate committee chaired by Collins and buried again in a vote on the Senate floor.

Speaker-designate Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and incoming Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) put ethics reform at the top of the list. Some significant changes can be made merely by revising House and Senate rules. The Democratic majority in the House, for example, has the power to impose bans on members taking free travel, meals and gifts.

“We need an air-tight lobbying gift ban,” said Feingold. ”Airtight, no ambiguity, no loopholes.” The ideal would be for House and Senate leaders on ethics — Democrats and Republicans — to coalesce around nearly identical bills mainly to avoid rewriting and gutting at the last minute.

Emanuel said the toughest sell remains the creation of some kind of an Office of Public Integrity and a variety of restrictions that would erode the ability of a lawmaker to travel with someone else picking up the tab.

McCain and company ticked off the essential elements of needed changes:

All information regarding lobbying available online with vastly more disclosure than at present.

Conflict of interest crackdowns, where congressional staffers would have to reveal job negotiations with special interests.

Members pay full costs of taking flights in privately operated planes.

Filing detailed reports on travel. At present lawmakers are not compelled to reveal information on even official travel and it is very hard to pry it out of them. “We need to require pre-approval of trips,” said Collins, “… a filing of the agenda and itinerary, so that the public can judge whether or not a trip was appropriate.”

Revamping the earmark system, including forcing names of congressional sponsors to be public, making it easier to delete earmarks and giving members time to read bills.

Outside ethics groups also call for a requirement that lobbyists be forced to reveal who they hold fund-raising events for. McCain, preparing for a 2008 presidential run, was willing to go further than almost every other official and candidate I deal with. I asked him if he was willing to disclose where he goes to raise money and who hosts his events. “Sure,” said McCain. He added, the public has ”the right to know all of my activities.”

Emanuel gauges the House can get most ethics and lobbying work done in January. The 29-member majority is fragile. Democrats were elected because voters were fed up with congressional scandals. ”We must continue to be the reformers,” Emanuel wrote in a Nov. 21 memo to Democrats titled “The importance of real lobbying and ethics reform.”

“Failing to deliver on this promise would be devastating to our standing with the public and certainly jeopardize some of our marginal seats. The voters are looking to us for leadership, and it starts with real reform.”

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