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Meanwhile, Obama is looking to sew up what watchdogs have called a gaping hole in reform plans by calling for an independent ethics commission to enforce lobbying laws. The nine-member panel would include four former Members of Congress and four former judges. The plan does not specify who would hold the ninth spot. The panel would act as an investigative body, with the power to issue subpoenas and compel testimony from witnesses and the production of documents.
To deter abuse of the commission for partisan purposes, false complaints would carry stiff penalties — a $10,000 fine and up to a year in jail. And there would be a three-month blackout on new complaints prior to elections.
Obama said he was skeptical Senators — as members of a “clubby institution” — would submit to discipline from a team of outsiders or, for that matter, any tough new rules regime. “I’m concerned that we may go for the easiest low-hanging fruit and we don’t move out of our comfort zone and do some things that may be tough but ultimately are going to be important to restore credibility,“ he said.
Lobbying reform proposals that appeared to be cruising to enactment just weeks ago have stuttered recently. House Republican leaders last week were forced to back off their plans when the GOP rank and file returned from the winter recess pushing back against swift rules changes. Some reforms, such as bans on privately funded travel and gifts from lobbyists, were further imperiled with the election of Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio) to the post of House Majority Leader.
Boehner is lukewarm on cracking down, favoring more transparency instead. But the Republicans’ new No. 2 in the House has advocated for the type of earmark reform gaining steam in the Senate. House Republicans have yet to produce a lobbying reform package, expecting it will start to take shape with the input of Conference members at the GOP retreat starting today.
In the Senate, Republican leaders are aiming to mark up a bill later this month. “We’re still in the process of seeing exactly what we’re going to do strategy-wise,” said Robert Traynham, spokesman for Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), who is leading reform efforts on behalf of GOP leadership. “We’re still seeking input and figuring out the timing.”
Santorum has said a bill McCain introduced last year will likely be the platform for the Republican package.