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House Passes Bill on Lobbying Changes

JOHN YDSTIE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm John Ydstie.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

A measure changing the rules governing the relationship between lawmakers and lobbyists has been narrowly approved in the House of Representatives.

Opponents charge the bill was weak and called it a sham, but majority Republicans said it was a first step toward meaningful lobby reform.

NPR's Brian Naylor has more.

BRIAN NAYLOR reporting:

Since the beginning of the year, the Republican majority in Congress has been struggling with its response to the lobbying scandals which have contributed to an approval rating of just 22 percent for Congress.

The scandals have led to attacks on Republicans like this one from Illinois Democrat Rahm Emanuel, who chair's his party's Congressional campaign committee.

Representative RAHM EMANUEL (Democrat, Illinois): When you guys came to Washington in 1994, you said you were going to change Washington. And Washington has changed you. It has become clear in the last 12 years, rather than have a contract with America you have a contract with K Street.

NAYLOR: And while Republicans bristle at those charges, they've had trouble coming up with a solution to the ethics question that has wide support from their own members.

Earlier the House voted to ban former lawmakers turned lobbyists from plying their trade on the House floor and in the gym, a step critics said was laughable.

The latest action goes a little farther, but far short of what reformers say is necessary. It will require lobbyists to report their dealings with lawmakers more frequently, four times a year instead of twice. It calls for ethics training courses for lawmakers and staff, and it would take away the pensions of members like Cunningham, who have been convicted of a crime.

Arizona Republican John Shadegg argued a vote against the package was a vote against reform.

Representative JOHN SHADEGG (Republican, Arizona): You cannot oppose this legislation, vote against it, and say you are voting for reform. Because what you are doing is leaving in place the current rules which do not go far enough.

NAYLOR: Democrats had their own proposal banning lawmakers from accepting meals, trips and gifts from lobbyists, and doubling from one year to two the length of time retired lawmakers would have to wait before lobbying their former colleagues.

New York Democrat Louise Slaughter.

Representative LOUISE SLAUGHTER (Democrat, New York): We know that the Democratic proposal is a tough one, Mr. Speaker, but that is what we have to do to drain this swamp. They want their Congress back out there in America, and so do I. They're sick and tired of Congress that lavishes gifts on special interest and then sends them the bill.

NAYLOR: The Democratic alternative was defeated by just three votes, and the Republican-backed version was approved by just four. Afterwards, Speaker Dennis Hastert said there were a lot of pieces to the bill.

Representative DENNIS HASTERT (Republican, Illinois; House Speaker): Some of it is very straightforward, some of it has something that we probably need to take a step or two farther, and we intend to do that. The important issue was to get this bill in the conference committee so that we can work with the Senate and come out with a product.

NAYLOR: The Senate approved its own bill earlier this spring. It goes slightly further than the House bill, but does not contain changes to campaign finance provisions included in the House measure, which Senate Democrats say they'll oppose and which could lead to contentious discussions down the road.

Brian Naylor, NPR News, the Capitol. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Brian Naylor
NPR News' Brian Naylor is a correspondent on the Washington Desk. In this role, he covers politics and federal agencies.