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The New Direction Congress: A Record of Reform

The New Direction Congress, the first Democratic majority in a dozen years, pledged to end an era of Congressional corruption and “drain the swamp” in Washington, restoring honest leadership and open government.  And we have taken steps to fulfill this promise. 

On the first day of the 110th Congress, we passed the toughest ethics reform in a generation - reforms that languished while Republicans oversaw the Congress.  And the landmark Honest Leadership and Open Government Act demanded an unprecedented level of disclosure of lobbying activities, closed the revolving between the Capitol and K Street, banned gifts from lobbyists and limited privately-funded travel--reforms rejected by Republicans when they controlled the Congress.  To spur/guarantee action on ethics violations, the House created an independent ethics panel to fundamentally change how we investigate ourselves, despite Republican opposition.

Instead of continuing the explosion of earmarks that occurred over the last decade, we required that every earmark be listed online, next to the name of the Member who requested it, cut the dollar amount of earmarks by 50 percent, and most recently instituted reforms to stop all earmarks directed to for-profits entities--in order to sever the link between Congressional action on behalf of for profit companies and campaign contributions. 

Previous Republican Congresses had years to act on these reforms.  This New Direction Congress is actually implementing them.

ETHICS AND LOBBYING REFORM

INDEPENDENT ETHICS ENFORCEMENT
In 2008, the House created an independent ethics panel, which was called “a strong stand against political corruption,” (St. Petersburg Times) that would “bring fundamental changes to how the House investigates itself,” (AP) by “address..[ing] the single biggest problem with the ethics committee:  things go to the committee and disappear into the black hole” (Ethics reform advocacy group Democracy 21). The measure:

  • ensures that credible allegations of wrongdoing will be examined by the Ethics Committee in a timely manner;
  • requires for the first time in history an independent review of alleged ethics violations by individuals who are not sitting Members of Congress; and
  • mandates public disclosure, for the first time, at key stages in the process, with timeframes for action.

TOUGHEST ETHICS REFORM IN A GENERATION, passed the opening day of the 110th Congress, breaking the link between lobbyists and legislators: no gifts, no private jets, and no meals from lobbyists.
 
LANDMARK LOBBYING REFORM, with the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act signed into law, Congress has demanded an unprecedented level of disclosure.  These reforms were hailed by independent public interest groups as 'landmark,' 'fundamental,' and a 'sea change for citizens':

  • mandating new transparency of lobbyists bundling campaign donations;
  • ending the 'K-Street Project' by prohibiting Members of Congress from attempting to influence employment decisions in exchange for political access;
  • expanding public disclosure of lobbying activity, including electronic filing for a public, searchable database; and
  • denying Congressional retirement benefits to Members convicted of bribery, perjury and similar crimes.

EARMARK REFORM, starting the first day of the 110th Congress, with

  • Significant reductions in the total dollar amount earmarked for non-project-based accounts in appropriations--totaling 43 percent below the 2006 level in the 2008 bills, reducing further in the 2009 bills, and reducing down to 50 percent in the 2010 bills.
  • Unprecedented rules for transparency in 2007, requiring that each bill must be accompanied by a list identifying each earmark that it includes and which member requested it--to be available online before the bill is ever voted on.  Each House earmark on those lists is backed up by a public letter from the requesting member identifying the earmark, the entity that will receive the funds and their address, what the earmark does, and a certification that neither the requesting member nor their spouse will benefit from it financially.
  • Requiring all Members' earmark requests to be publicly disclosed in 2009 on their websites at the time the request is made explaining the purpose of the earmark and why it is a valuable use of taxpayer funds. 
  • House earmarks designated for for-profit entities must submit a bid and compete in a fair competition in recognition for the potential for abuse in sole-source contracting.
  • No earmarks to for-profit entities in 2010, as today the House Appropriations Committee announced that it will not approve requests for earmarks that are directed to for-profit entities.  If this rule had been in effect last year, it would have resulted in 1,000 fewer earmarks.   This committee requirement includes new oversight, through Inspector General audits, to prevent for-profits from masquerading as non-profits.
  • For greater transparency in 2010, the Committee is establishing an online “one-stop” link to all House Members' appropriations earmark requests to enable the public to easily view them.
  • A one-year moratorium on earmarks in 2007 until a reformed process could be put in place.

GREATER TRANSPARENCY AND ACCOUNTABILITY

DEMOCRATIC REFORMS FOR GREATER TRANSPARENCY & FAIRNESS.  Since regaining the majority in 2007, Democrats have put measures in place to ensure transparency and openness, so that Members have time to review legislation before voting on it.

  • Posting the text of amendments on the internet to give Members and the public a chance to review them. (bills are also online on the Rules Committee website and Thomas and prior to voting)
  • New rules to guarantee that conference committees provide a specific period of time and a location for conferees to review the final conference report before signing.
  • A ban on slipping in provisions into final conference agreements after the measure is approved by the conference committee.

UNPRECEDENTED RECOVERY ACT ACCOUNTABILITY &TRANSPARENCY, to help ensure that taxpayer dollars are spent wisely and effectively--no earmarks, new state whistleblower protections, strong oversight, and a new www.recovery.gov website allowing Americans for the first time to track the investments online.

STRENGTHENING OVERSIGHT OF TARP, to expand the authority of the TARP Special Inspector General, to help ensure that taxpayers' funds are effectively used to get credit flowing to businesses and families. Since last fall, Congress has also held more than a dozen oversight hearings on how the TARP funds are being used.  

STRENGTHENING FREEDOM OF INFORMATION ACT, to better protect the public's right to know and make the government more transparent. 

REQUIRING MEMBERS' OFFICE EXPENSE REPORTS TO BE PLACED ONLINE
to provide greater transparency and accountability.