Feb. 11, 2016 SIGN IN | REGISTER

Scope of Felony Rule Unresolved

Democrats angling to kill retirement benefits for lawmakers convicted of certain crimes are getting a challenge, from across the aisle, to go further.

Senators last week added a change to their ethics reform package that would strip federal pensions from Members of Congress found guilty of one of three felonies related to their official duties. But Republican Rep. Mark Kirk (Ill.) is pushing an alternative measure that expands the list to 21 crimes.

House Democrats on Tuesday evening were wrestling with the details of their own version, expected to be offered today by freshman Rep. Nancy Boyda (D-Kan.). The bill likely will be based on a provision in the Republican-authored lobbying reform bill the House passed last spring.

Like the Senate-approved amendment, the provision in that bill names only three crimes — effectively covering bribery and conspiracy, and perjury to cover them up. Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.) said that approach ignores two broad categories of crimes related to Congressional service: espionage and embezzlement.

House Democrats on Tuesday were trying to strengthen the language of their measure while making sure it would not spark protests from the Senate.

“This week, the House will address this crucial issue regarding pensions of Members convicted of crimes while in office,” said Drew Hammill, a spokesman for Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). “We will be working closely with the Senate and hope to resolve any differences as soon as possible.”

The state of the current law, which allows lawmakers to collect taxpayer-funded pensions no matter what crimes they are found guilty of committing, has made the issue a flashpoint at a time when several current and former Members of Congress are facing federal corruption probes.

Kirk first introduced his bill during the 109th Congress, working closely with then-Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.). But Kirk said members of the Republican Conference objected to any kind of pension cutoff, and negotiating with them behind closed doors, Hastert pared the list of covered crimes down to a few.

“I don’t think they have a legitimate objection,” Kirk said of his GOP colleagues. “And I don’t think the American people would understand a lawmaker who votes to keep taxpayer-funded pensions for Members convicted of public-integrity felonies.”

The chopped-down language got rolled into the GOP-authored lobbying reform package, and House Democrats copied it in their alternative version.

Sherman, who co-sponsored the Kirk bill last year, said Tuesday he was inclined to support it again but wants to talk to Boyda and see her proposal. “I don’t see a replay in our Caucus” of what the GOP did last year in watering down his proposal, Sherman said. “I think we will end up with a stronger bill than what Republicans passed.”

The Kirk bill only covers crimes committed after the bill’s passage, meaning some Members of Congress already convicted of crimes related to their service are eligible to collect healthy pension checks. Former House Ways and Means Chairman Dan Rostenkowski (D-Ill.), who was sentenced to 17 months for violating payroll and office purchasing rules, can take home $125,000 a year in retirement money, according to the National Taxpayers Union.

Former Rep. Duke Cunningham (R-Calif.), currently serving an eight-year term for bribery, tax evasion and fraud, can still collect $65,000 a year, according to the group.

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