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Congress Examines Reform of Ethics Standards

STEVE INSKEEP, host

Congress continues struggling with the fallout from its bribery scandals involving the lobbyists Jack Abramoff and Congressman Randy Duke Cunningham. Lawmakers are considering whether to change Congressional ethics standards. Yesterday, two Senate committees looked but found no easy answers. NPR's Peter Overby reports.

PETER OVERBY reporting:

Some lawmakers say the post-Abramoff repair work should start far away from Capitol Hill on Indian reservations. Jack Abramoff used campaign contributions from casino-owning Indian tribes to lubricate his lobbying in Congress. It was easy because Indian contributions are barely regulated. Some lawmakers want to ban tribal contributions. But yesterday, Native Americans protested to the Senate Indian Affairs Committee that they shouldn't be the scapegoats. W. Ron Allen is treasurer of the National Congress of American Indians.

Mr. W. RON ALLEN (Treasurer, National Congress for American Indians): For us, this is a lobbying scandal. This is not about a tribal scandal. This is not about anything that they tried to have done wrong.

OVERBY: Allen said what many now assume about Capitol Hill, that campaign contributions are essential.

Mr. ALLEN: So that we can protect our interests, so that we can continue to advance our agenda. Otherwise, what you could easily do is you could push us back 20, 30 and 40 years so that we're not able to engage with the Congressional leadership in a way that causes you to understand what our needs are.

OVERBY: The law about tribal contributions is strange, to say the least. The actual campaign finance statues don't even mention them. Agency regulations say that tribes are not corporations or unions or political action committees. They're considered "persons", quote, unquote, but not individuals. As a result, individual contributions from tribes are regulated like anyone else's, but tribes don't have any cap on how much they can spend overall on contributions, and they don't have to disclose anything, only the recipients of their checks do.

Most lawmakers see Indian money as a sideshow. They're more worked about new restrictions on lobbyists on their gifts, on the meals they may, on the trips they offer to lawmakers and staff. But political scientist James Thurber, of American University in Washington, told Indian Affairs chairman John McCain that the problem is even closer to home.

Mr. JAMES THURBER (Political Scientist, American University, Washington): And I think you're the problem, Senator, not you personally. I think the individuals in the House and the Senate should look at themselves and the staff should look at themselves very clearly and not totally beat up on lobbyists, because much of what was associated with Jack Abramoff was going on for a long time by members of Congress and staff.

OVERBY: Another aspect of the argument that's been around for a while, earmarking, the practice of setting aside provisions in law or in dollars to benefit one locality or one corporation. Use of earmarks has exploded in recent years. Yesterday, House Budget Committee chair Jim Nussle said he didn't want any local earmarks in this year's spending bills.

But in the afternoon, on the Senate side, Rules Committee chair Trent Lott said he's used earmarks, quote, "because the bureaucrats won't do their job."

Mr. TRENT LOTT (Chairman, Rules Committee): I did it; I'm proud of it; and I'm not going to stop.

OVERBY: Still the atmosphere is changing on Capitol Hill. At the Rules Committee yesterday, Democrat Barak Obama scornfully referred to Republican Congressman Tom DeLay, who once went to Scotland with Abramoff, a trip financed by a tax exempt group Abramoff was connected to.

Senator BARAK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois): When Tom DeLay went to Scotland to play golf, that was under the aegis of a 501(c)(3) that sounded like it was educational and it didn't look like there were too many serious seminars taking place on that trip.

OVERBY: No Republicans or anyone else spoke up in DeLay's defense.

Peter Overby, NPR News, the Capitol. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Peter Overby has covered Washington power, money, and influence since a foresighted NPR editor created the beat in 1994.