Wash. Post, other print outlets obscured facts on GOP House ethics-reform bill

››› ››› JOSH KALVEN

A Washington Post article on the ethics-reform bill passed by the House of Representatives buried a crucial fact: The bill had provoked widespread criticism from Democrats and government watchdog groups. In addition, the article noted that eight Democrats crossed party lines and voted for the bill, but did not similarly note that more than twice as many Republicans crossed party lines to vote against it. Other major print outlets similarly omitted crucial context regarding the House bill.

In a May 4 article on the ethics-reform bill passed by the House of Representatives -- which The Washington Post noted in the headline would require "more disclosure" -- Washington Post staff writer Jeffrey H. Birnbaum buried crucial facts -- that the bill had provoked widespread criticism from Democrats and government watchdog groups -- and that even 20 Republicans voted against it. Coverage of the bill's approval by other major print news outlets similarly omitted crucial context about the House's handling of the measure and the provisions it contained.

House Resolution 4975, sponsored by Rep. David Dreier (R-CA) and introduced on March 16, was approved by the House on May 3 by a 217-213 vote. The bill, called the Lobbying Accountability and Transparency Act of 2006, mandates greater disclosure of lobbyists' activities, institutes new disclosure requirements for earmarks included in spending bills and requires the House ethics committee to approve in advance privately funded trips taken by lawmakers. Further, the measure increases penalties for ethics violations, subjects House staffers to ethics trainings, and denies pensions to House members convicted of bribery.

Prior to the final roll call, Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-NY) called it a "sham" and Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-IL) described it as "the incredible shrinking bill. With each passing day, it has become weaker and smaller." Major editorial pages had chimed in earlier, with The Washington Post branding the reform package "diluted snake oil," The New York Times declaring it an "election-year con," and USA Today calling it an "anemic excuse for reform."

All but eight Democrats voted against the GOP reform package. The opposition focused largely on the failure of the bill to ban privately funded travel and gifts from lobbyists, address the insertion of earmarks in tax and authorization measures, close certain lobbying loopholes, and curb the "revolving door" effect, in which retired lawmakers quickly start work as lobbyists.

In the first two paragraphs of his May 4 article -- "House Lobbying Rules Call for More Disclosure" -- Birnbaum noted that the ethics bill had been "narrowly approved ... [b]y a vote of 217 to 213." He went on to detail its various provisions and examine the issue of whether some ethics rules could differ in the House and Senate.

But not until the 13th paragraph of the 21-paragraph article did Birnbaum inform readers of the criticism of the bill, noting that "Joan Claybrook, president of the liberal group Public Citizen, said the measure is 'a fraud on the American public.' "

Further, Birnbaum waited until the 17th paragraph to let readers know that the bill was strongly opposed by almost all Democrats. He wrote that "Democrats voted overwhelmingly against the House bill."

In the following paragraph, Birnbaum listed the eight Democrats who voted for the measure. He then noted that representatives from Maryland and Virginia had largely voted along party lines, with the exception of Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-VA). But at no point in the article did he make explicit that the number of Republicans who opposed the bill -- 20 -- more than twice the number of Democrats who supported it.

In the second to last paragraph, Birnbaum quoted Dreier defending the bill as "strong and bold." But he failed to inform readers that the California Republican was the bill's chief sponsor.

By contrast, New York Times reporter Sheryl Gay Stolberg reported in the lead paragraph of her May 4 article that "Democrats denounced the measure as a sham, and 20 Republicans voted against it." Associated Press staff writer Jim Abrams began a May 3 report by noting that Republicans said the ethics bill "would define bright lines of right and wrong while Democrats said it was a feeble attempt at reform that won't fool voters this fall." A May 4 article by Los Angeles Times staff writer Faye Fiore immediately noted that the near party-line vote "reflected criticisms by Democrats that the bill ... would do little to change the way business is conducted on Capitol Hill." And USA Today staff writer Jim Drinkard wrote in his May 4 article that the "Republican-led House" had passed the bill "despite objections that it is a weak response to the capital's influence and corruption scandal."

Stolberg did err in writing that the measure would "require lawmakers and their aides to attend ethics training." Similarly, Abrams wrote that the bill would "subject both congressional staff and members to ethics training." In fact, the bill requires only House staffers to attend the trainings and merely "encourages" members to take part.

Wash. Post, LA Times, USA Today ignored rejection of Democratic alternative

The May 4 articles by Birnbaum, Fiore, and Drinkard all failed to report that, immediately before passing the GOP-sponsored reform bill, Republicans voted down an ethics package put forward by House Democrats.

Prior to the final vote on H.R. 4975, Slaughter moved to substitute the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act of 2006 in its place. This package, first introduced by the Democratic leadership on February 1, differs from the bill passed by the House in numerous ways, including:

  • Requiring the public disclosure of earmarks in tax and authorization bills, as well as appropriations measures.
  • Extending from one year to two years the period a retiring lawmaker must wait before taking a job lobbying Congress.
  • Ending the practice of the House leadership's holding roll-call votes open until a majority votes the way the leadership wants, by requiring the consent of both the majority and minority party leaders to hold open roll-call votes.

The Democrats' bill came up for a vote on May 3 -- minutes before the vote on final passage of the GOP bill -- and failed 213-216, with all but 16 Republicans opposing it.

USA Today overlooked House Republicans' original pledge to ban gifts, private trips

USA Today's Drinkard also ignored Republicans' failure to follow through on their original pledges to ban lobbyists from paying for meals and to ban privately funded travel. In January 2006, at the outset of the drive for ethics reform in Congress, House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-IL) held a press conference in which he stated:

HASTERT: First, we must ban privately sponsored travel in the House of Representatives. I know fact-finding trips are important. This body considers legislation that affects people that cannot always travel to Washington to petition their government. Private travel has been abused by some, and I believe we need to put an end to it.

Second, I think we need to tighten even further the gift rules. A Member of Congress should be able to accept a ball cap or a t-shirt from the proud students at a local middle school, but he or she doesn't need to be taken to lunch or dinner by a lobbyist.

In a January 18 article, Drinkard reported Hastert's call for a GOP ethics package that would "include a ban on privately financed trips ... [and] meals and entertainment paid for by lobbyists." But Drinkard failed to mention the pledge in his May 4 article, despite the fact that the bill ultimately approved by the House included neither of these provisions.

Posted In
Government, Ethics
Network/Outlet
The Washington Post, USA Today, Los Angeles Times
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