June 21, 2012

The Senate Ethics Rules Are A Joke, And Here’s One Reason Why

The Senate Ethics Rules Are A Joke, And Here's One Reason Why
Former Senators Blanche Lincoln and Evan Bayh now work in the lobbying business.

Can Congress effectively police itself and stop corruption? We visited the Senate Ethics Office, and found a pretty blatant example of how lawmakers exploit a loophole in a rule designed ostensibly to stop revolving door bribery.

In 2007, in the wake of the Jack Abramoff scandal, in which it became obvious that many lawmakers and staff sold favors in exchange for high paying jobs on K Street, Congress passed sweeping ethics rules. Republic Report has detailed how this revolving dynamic still exists, with many members of Congress doling out benefits to specific companies, only to take jobs at those same firms after they retire. But the 2007 rules attempt to curb this problem by forcing senators to disclose job negotiations made with an outside entity while in office.

We traveled to the Senate Ethics Office to see which senators have actually complied with this rule. The vast majority of former senators have entered lobbying or lobby-related jobs since 2007, so we expected at least a few disclosures.

We found that only two senators have ever filled out a job negotiations disclosure form. Senators Trent Lott (R-MS) and Bob Bennett (R-UT) were the only ones. Take a look:

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Both senators now occupy jobs on K Street. Lott has a firm that is part of the powerhouse Patton Boggs lobby shop, and Bennett works with Arent Fox.

What about the other senators? Do we really believe that every single retiring member of the Senate, except for Lott and Bennett, waited until they left public office to begin negotiating? Many senators who retired since 2007 are now working in lobby-related jobs. Many of them took these jobs within days and weeks of retiring.

The rule has a loophole allowing senators to negotiate without disclosure as long as those negotiations are made after their replacement is elected — the lame duck period. This substantial loophole allows sitting senators to negotiate with private interests while still voting and legislating on important pieces of public policy.

For instance, former Senator Kit Bond (R-MO) announced on January 4, 2011 — literally only 24 hours after his last day in office on January 3rd — that he would be taking a job at the law/lobbying firm Thomas Coburn. Of course, he did not file a negotiation form. In a short interview with Republic Report, Bond told us he did not have to disclose his negotiations because they began just after the election in 2010, his lame duck period.