Ethics Reform Bill Called 'Sleight of Hand'

By Monisha Bansal | July 7, 2008 | 8:05 PM EDT

( - Unhappy with the ethics reform bill scheduled for a vote in the U.S. House of Representatives next Tuesday, Gary Kalman, democracy advocate with Public Interest Research Groups, said that in light of recent ethics violations by several U.S. congressmen, the bill "is not a slap on the wrist, but a sleight of hand."

Several members of Congress, including Reps. Alan Mollohan (D-W.Va.), John Conyers (D-Mich.) and William Jefferson (D-La.), have recently been accused of ethics violations, and Reps. Tom DeLay (R-Texas) and Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R-Ca.) have resigned.

In response, Rep. Joel Hefley (R-Co.) introduced the House Ethics Reform Act of 2006 last month in order to deal with the growing allegations. But Kalman referred to it as "a weak bill with false promises."

The Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, or House Ethics Committee, is currently considered to be ineffective by many who call for strong reforms, like Chellie Pingree, president of Common Cause.

"The Ethics Committee has been inoperative for essentially all of this Congress and shows no signs of addressing numerous matters that have been and are before the committee," Pingree said.

She called the bill "worse than window dressing" for not dealing with issues made apparent through Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff's illegal contributions to several members of Congress in return for votes on key legislation.

"The bill not only lacks meaningful reform to address the problems seen through the Abramoff scandal, but it is also trying to deny what they are doing, which is maintaining the status quo and calling it reform," said Pingree.

Kalman and Pingree pointed to limits on travel as an example. Because of a sunset provision in the bill, lawmakers could theoretically vote for the bill, which would not allow lobbyists to pay for travel, but then have that provision expire when the new session starts.

Pingree said if there isn't real change, voters will be very angry and take that to the polls with them.

But Hefley defended his bill in a statement. "We have crafted a common-sense ethics reform package that if adopted will help restore public confidence in the House," the congressman said.

"We believe that transparency combined with credible enforcement are the best ways to reform the House's ethics rules," said Hefley.

"In the wake of the recent high-profile scandals, it is essential for the House to consider reform legislation in a timely manner. During this debate, it is our hope that we can avoid political posturing or knee-jerk ideas that might sound good in a press release but are unworkable or detrimental to the House in a practical sense," Hefley added.

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