Scandal Politics

Are lawmakers better at dishing out accountability than taking it?

Two former U.S. representatives were locked up in federal prisons in the last 18 months for corruption. Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham, R-Calif., is serving eight years for getting defense work for contractors in return for bribes and favors. Rep. Bob Ney, R-Ohio, is serving a 30-month sentence after taking bribes related to his official work in Congress. Ney was caught in an investigation of lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who also is in prison. Former Office of Management and Budget and General Services Administration official, David Safavian, also was caught in that investigation and was sentenced last year to 18 months in prison.

The Cunningham and Ney cases-along with continuing investigations into the activities of various Republicans and Democrats in both the House and Senate-helped spur Congress this year to approve a sweeping ethics and lobbying reform bill that places stricter limits on the conduct of Senate and House members, their staffers, and executive branch appointees. President Bush signed the bill into law on Sept. 14.

Ethics was one of the issues Democrats highlighted in their 2006 election campaigns, helping the party take over Congress for the first time in 12 years. Ney's former seat went to a Democrat, as did the seat of former Rep. Tom DeLay, R-Texas, who saw two of his former staffers plead guilty in the Abramoff investigation. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., made ethics legislation the first order of business in the new Congress in January.

But even though it was scandals involving House members and staffers that made the legislation such a high priority, a key part of the new law places tougher restrictions on everybody but those two groups. That part governs the cooling-off period for officials leaving government service, requiring them to wait before lobbying their former colleagues. Cooling-off periods limit the pull of the revolving door between government jobs and more lucrative positions in the private sector that take advantage of officials' connections in government.

Under previous law, the cooling-off period for most officials in both the legislative and executive branches was one year. Under the new law, the duration for senators and senior executive branch appointees-Cabinet secretaries, the vice president and top White House staff-is two years. But for House members and Capitol Hill staffers, it's still one year. President Bush noted the discrepancy when he signed the bill. "The bill holds members of the Senate and executive branch employees to a much higher standard of conduct than members of the House," Bush said.

This, it turns out, is not a new fight. In 1988, President Ronald Reagan vetoed a bill that the House passed, imposing a two-year cooling-off period on executive branch employees but only one year on members of Congress. "In future consideration of post-employment restrictions legislation, the Congress should determine what restrictions are reasonable and necessary to protect the integrity of government and then apply them equally to both the Congress and the executive branch," Reagan wrote in his veto message. Legislation finally signed into law a year later set a standard one-year cooling-off period for everyone.

Bush suggested in his signing statement that a standard rule should be applied in the future. But for now, members of the House have decided a higher standard is necessary for others, but not themselves.

Brian Friel covered management and human resources at Government Executive for six years and is now a National Journal staff correspondent.

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