U.S. political parties competing in ethics proposals

Republicans and Democrats in the United States Congress are trying to outdo each other with ethics reforms as fast as they can, as they return to face an election year influence-peddling scandal that may produce grim headlines for some. The deputies were spurred to action by the recent guilty plea of former super-lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who agreed to tell prosecutors how he allegedly lavished donations, trips, restaurant meals and arena skybox parties on members of Congress who provided legislative help.

The disgrace already has produced incidents. Bob Ney, an Ohio Republican implicated in the Abramoff investigation, said Sunday he will step aside temporarily as chairman of the House Administration Committee. That panel controls internal House operations.

Former Majority Leader Tom DeLay, who had ties to Abramoff and faces a Texas felony trial on campaign finance charges, earlier announced he would not try to regain his post.

Democrats, who have adopted a "culture of corruption" theme in a drive to oust Republicans from control of Congress, intend to unveil this week a proposed ban on lobbyists' gifts to lawmakers.

The ban would include gifts of meals and tickets to sporting or entertainment events as well as travel, according to officials familiar with the proposals.

Even before the announcement, aides to the Senate Democratic leader, Harry Reid of Nevada, circulated a memo Monday night saying he will implement the change immediately for his own staff.

"No employee in Senator Reid's federal offices will be allowed to receive any meals, gifts or travel from lobbyists," it said. The Democratic package also will include doubling the current one-year cooling-off period that former lawmakers or senior aides must observe before they are allowed to lobby without restriction.

Republicans are hoping to limit the political fallout. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist and House Speaker Dennis Hastert both have announced plans to consider changes in rules or law to limit the impact lobbyists have on members of Congress.

Both men are considering bans on gifts and privately funded travel, and are waiting to hear recommendations from fellow Republicans on other measures.

At the outset of the new congressional year, the internal policemen of both houses the House and Senate ethics committees are starting out on the sidelines as lawmakers return to work this week.

The Associated Press asked the four lawmakers who lead the ethics committees whether they would make a commitment to investigate ethical wrongdoing if, as expected, the information Abramoff supplies exposes misconduct by a number of lawmakers. Each of the four two Republicans and two Democrats declined, through his spokesmen, to do so.

Current congressional rules prohibit lobbyists from paying for travel for members of Congress and their staff.

But qualified private sponsors can pay for food, transportation and lodging when lawmakers travel to meetings, speaking engagements or fact-finding events in connection with official duties. Abramoff's clients had contributed to his nonprofit organizations, allowing those groups to sponsor congressional travel.

Abramoff was cited for arranging lavish trips for DeLay to the Northern Mariana Islands and to Scotland, where he played golf at St. Andrews. DeLay has said he did not know Abramoff paid for the travel and asked the House ethics committee to look into the trips. The panel has taken no action, reports the AP.

D.M.