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Closing the Book on the Era of Jack Abramoff

This week, the Senate will consider the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act, a landmark ethics and lobbying reform bill that gives us a chance to change the way business is done in Washington, D.C. This package of reforms cracks down on the kinds of excesses that have appalled Americans in recent years and helped bring them to the polls to vote for change in November. Faced with the corruption of lobbyist Jack Abramoff and former GOP Reps. Bob Ney (Ohio) and Duke Cunningham (Calif.), among others, voters overwhelmingly rejected the status quo at the ballot box.

By any reasonable measure, this bill is a very strong response to the American people’s call for reform. It increases disclosure by lobbyists of their lobbying activities and their financial support of Members of Congress, cracks down on privately funded trips, requires reimbursement at the charter rate for the use of corporate jets, imposes an airtight ban on gifts from lobbyists and includes tougher limitations on lobbying activities by former Senators and high-level Senate staffers. These are significant reforms that many thought were completely unattainable just a year ago.

Some opponents of the bill, determined to change the subject from ethics reform, are focusing on minor revisions to the earmark provisions that the Senate passed at the beginning of the year. I have long been a strong supporter of earmark reform, and in January, when the Senate first debated this bill, I was pleased to support the earmark reform amendment authored by Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.). The earmark reforms included in this proposal are consistent with the DeMint amendment, stronger than the original bipartisan leadership proposal that was introduced in January, and an enormous improvement over the way earmarks had been handled by both Democratic- and Republican-controlled Congresses in the past.

With so many important reforms in this bill, the Senate shouldn’t let the debate be derailed because the earmark provisions in the new proposal are not identical to the earmark provision the Senate originally passed, especially when the final earmark language is so strong. Our attention has to be focused on ending the abuses that created the momentum for ethics reform in the first place. Ney’s golfing trip to Scotland with Abramoff, all expenses paid, is an extreme example of the many ways that wealthy lobbyists get access and, sometimes, undue influence on Capitol Hill. But it is by no means the only one. The public shouldn’t have to question at every turn whether their Member of Congress is doing some lobbyist’s bidding.

Passing this bill to tighten our ethics rules can go a long way toward restoring some of the public’s confidence in government. We have to show the American people that Members of Congress understand how bad it looks to accept a free trip to a fancy resort, a free flight on a fancy corporate jet or a free meal from a lobbyist at a fancy restaurant.

Ethical conduct in government should be more than an aspiration, it should be a requirement. In the previous Congress, despite a host of Congressional scandals on front pages across the country, reform efforts stalled. The conventional wisdom was that the voters didn’t care; at least that’s what the defenders of the status quo assured themselves. They were wrong.

Now we have an opportunity to pass far-reaching ethics reform, and Congress shouldn’t let opponents of reform change the subject. The simple question Senators must ask themselves is whether we want to change the way Washington does business. The Honest Leadership and Open Government Act is the right way to close the book on the Abramoff era.

Sen. Russ Feingold is a Democrat from Wisconsin.

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