The Senate on Wednesday passed an ethics and lobbying bill that fell short of the loophole closing measure reform advocates wanted. Senators kept a perk which allows them to take cut-rate flights on corporate aircraft paying only a fraction of the price, equal to a first class fare.
Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), the Democratic lead on ethics fought to get rid of the aircraft ride deal as well as some kind of an independent ethics entity to investigate allegations of abuse. The Senate rejected embracing those measures, though the chamber did agree to force more disclosures from lobbyists.
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March 30, 2006
BY LYNN SWEET SUN-TIMES COLUMNIST
When Rep. Tom Reynolds (R-N.Y.), the chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, landed at Palwaukee Airport in Wheeling last Friday for a day of politics in the northern suburbs, he was flying in a corporate plane provided by an upstate New York company.
Reynolds -- or more likely the NRCC -- will only pay a fraction of the cost of operating the aircraft, with the ride subsidized by the Pyramid Companies, a Syracuse, N.Y., shopping mall developer.
It's a perfectly legal arrangement and one we now know Congress does not want to change, despite the recent lobbying scandals.
Under current rules, a company providing corporate aircraft for political use only has to be reimbursed for the equivalent of first-class airfare for the trip. Between 2001 and 2005, a string of Illinois-based companies provided planes for lawmakers -- Archer Daniels Midland, Abbott Laboratories, Boeing, Caterpillar and Motorola, to name a few. According to federal records aggregated by Political MoneyLine.com, during the period between 2001 and 2005, Abbott flew mainly Republicans and ADM gave plenty of rides to Democrats.
But the point is not so much which party gets more rides on this floating corporate political air force. It's that any lawmaker gets the break at all.
These subsidized flights on corporate aircraft have been in the crosshairs of advocates of lobbying and ethics reform, who thought -- incorrectly it turned out, at least so far -- that Congress had a real appetite for change.
The Senate passed a lobbying and ethics bill on Wednesday that falls far short of addressing the worst excesses of Congress. The watered down legislation was approved on a 90-8 vote on the day that convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff -- whose schemes triggered the scandals -- was sentenced to 70 months in prison.
Freshman Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), who in January was appointed the Democratic lead on ethics reform, made a plea from the Senate floor on Tuesday for his colleagues to support an amendment to discontinue the subsidized flights. Obama did not come to the issue with clean hands. "I have used corporate jets in the past,'' Obama said Tuesday from the Senate floor.
In his first year in office, Obama took 23 subsidized flights. The same week he was named to the ethics job, Obama's office announced that in the future, the senator's political war chest would pay the entire cost of using corporate planes.
"This isn't about our convenience,'' Obama said Tuesday from the Senate floor. "It is about our reputation as public servants who are here to work for the common voter, not the highest bidder. We all know that corporations are not allowing us to use their jets out of the kindness of their hearts. It is yet another way that lobbyists try to curry influence with lawmakers.''
Obama's Senate colleagues decided to do some right things.
Sponsors Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) passed a measure that will ban lobbyists' gifts to lawmakers and staffers and require that privately funded trips get pre-cleared from the Ethics Committee.
Most important, there will be more information disclosed about how lobbyists inject money into the political system, and it will have to be filed on searchable data bases.
I can't imagine that with the Senate lead, the House will come through with anything tougher.
When I talked to the NRCC on Wednesday, spokesman Carl Forti said they had no plans to voluntarily stop the perfectly legal use of taking cut-rate corporate flights.
Reynolds was in the Chicago area to stump for investment banker David McSweeney, who on March 21 won the GOP nomination to run against Rep. Melissa Bean (D-Ill.) in the 8th Congressional District.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, chaired by Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.), also has used corporate planes. "On occasion, Rahm or Leader [Nancy] Pelosi will use a private plane," said DCCC spokesman Sarah Feinberg.
McSweeney and I talked on Wednesday and he stressed that Reynolds was in full compliance with the law. He was. But McSweeney, who is making congressional ethics one of his campaign calling cards, said if he were in the House, he would vote for lawmakers to have to "pay the full market value of the flight.''
Democrat Obama and Republican hopeful McSweeney, who may disagree on many policy issues, see the point in grounding the corporate political air force. Too bad they are flying almost solo on this one.
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