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The New Direction Congress: A Record Of Ethics, Accountability, & Transparency Reform

After years of the Abramoff scandal, special interests lobbyists writing legislation, and an explosion of earmarks, the New Direction Congress, the first Democratic majority in a dozen years, pledged to end an era of Congressional corruption and restore honest leadership and open government.  And we have taken major steps to fulfill this promise.

  • On the first day of the 110th Congress, in January 2007, the New Direction Congress passed the toughest ethics reform in a generation - reforms that languished for more than a decade of Republican control. 
  • The landmark Honest Leadership and Open Government Act requires 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 Congress. 
  • To guarantee action on ethics violations, the House created the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE), an independent panel despite Republican opposition. Creation of the OCE won praise from major independent reform organizations.
  • Speaker Pelosi also instituted reforms that the Wall Street Journal called “the first significant made to the House's travel rules in more than 30 years.” [5/14/10]  These new travel forbid use of business class on shorter trips and prohibit the use of official per diem for unofficial purposes.
  • Ending the explosion of earmarks under Republicans, Democrats 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 instituted reforms to stop all earmarks to for-profits entities.

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, 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 web sites 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 the House Appropriations Committee has 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.

REFORMS TO HOUSE DELEGATION TRAVEL

  • Eliminating so-called “enhanced” per diem, except in extraordinary circumstances, and a new requirement for the full documentation of such use;
  • A new requirement that Members and staff taking international or domestic official travel via commercial air will be required to book in coach/economy class unless scheduled travel is in excess of 14 hours.

NO CONGRESSIONAL PAY RAISE
Congressional pay has been frozen for 2010 and 2011, saving taxpayers more than $2 million.

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.

  • Posting the text of major legislation and amendments on the internet to allow Members and the public adequate time for review prior to votes.
  • 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 inserting provisions into final conference agreements after the measure is approved by the conference committee.
  • Requirement that all Member and Committee expenses be placed online quarterly to ensure greater transparency and accountability.
  • Strict ban on earmarks in economic recovery act legislation.
  • Tough whistleblower protections, strong oversight, and a new www.recovery.gov web site allowing Americans for the first time to track investments online.
  • Mandate taxpayers be repaid first - with interest - by companies provided emergency assistance to prevent economic collapse, resulting in billions in profits for taxpayers.
  • Strengthening the Freedom of Information Act that provides public access to government records and makes the government more transparent.