Mr. OBAMA. Mr. President, I come to the Chamber today to address the ethics bill that has been pending before the Senate for the past three weeks. It has now been exactly four months since Duke Cunningham resigned from the House after pleading guilty to bribery, tax evasion, and mail fraud charges. It has now been almost three months since Jack Abramoff pled guilty to defrauding Indian tribes.
In the aftermath of both guilty pleas, Members on both sides of the aisles in both Houses of Congress brought forward good proposals to change the culture that led to these scandals, and yet here we are on March 28th with a half-finished ethics bill in the Senate and even less in the House.
I know there are many important issues facing our country--health care, education, the war in Iraq, and, as I just mentioned, immigration--but it is equally important that we as Members of Congress consider how we are going to deal with the cloud of corruption that hangs over the Capitol and how that affects the issues which are important to the American people. For that reason, I sincerely hope the leadership of both parties will be able to reach an agreement to bring this bill back to the floor before our next recess.
The American people are tired of a Washington that is only open to those with the most cash and the right connections. They are tired of a political process where the vote you cast isn't as important as the favors you do. And they are tired of trusting us with their tax dollars when they see them spent on frivolous pet projects and corporate giveaways.
It is not a game that is new in this town. It is not particularly surprising to the public. People are not naive about the existence of corruption. They know it has worn the face of both Republicans and Democrats over the years. So the hope is that we could find a bipartisan solution to the problem.
Before the recess, we made some progress on the ethics bill. I was pleased to join with Senator Dodd on an amendment to ban Members and staff from accepting meals from lobbyists. And when we get back to the bill, I will be joining Senators SANTORUM, MCCAIN, LIEBERMAN, and FEINGOLD in offering an amendment to define the way we reimburse corporate jet travel. I would like to spend a few minutes talking about this amendment.
During the past 5 years, Members of Congress, Presidential candidates, and political parties have used the corporate jets of 286 companies a total of more than 2,100 times. Despite the fact that a single flight of these jets can cost tens of thousands of dollars, the average reimbursement rate has only been about $1,700 per trip. So far, politicians have gotten away with this because current law only requires us to reimburse the cost of a first-class ticket on these charter flights, not the actual cost of operating the plane. But since we are usually the only passengers on the plane who don't work for the company, this rule is effectively giving us thousands of dollars in unwarranted discounts. This has to change.
Let me say this to my colleagues: Although I discontinued the practice earlier this year, I have used corporate jets in the past. I know some of the other proponents of this amendment have done the same. I know how convenient these charters can be. I know that a lot of my colleagues, particularly those from large States, will oppose this rule change because it makes it significantly more difficult and costly to interact with their constituents who live in less populated parts of their States. So I am not unsympathetic to these concerns. There are many parts of Illinois in which there is no commercial air service.
But this isn't about our convenience. It is about our reputation as public servants who are here to work for the common voter, not the highest bidder. We all know that corporations are not allowing us to use their jets out of the kindness of their hearts. It is yet another way that lobbyists try to curry influence with lawmakers.
One lobbyist told USA Today about the advantages of allowing Members of Congress to use his jet. He said:
You can sit down and have a cocktail and talk casually about a matter, rather than rushing in between meetings on Capitol Hill.
A lobbyist for a telecommunications company is quoted as saying that providing a jet to a lawmaker ``gives us an opportunity to form relationships, to have a long stretch of time to explain issues that are technical and complicated. If it wasn't useful, we wouldn't do it.''
The vast majority of the people we represent don't have the money to buy that access and form those relationships. They don't have the ability to fly us around on their private planes. In fact, they are having enough trouble paying the mortgage and their medical bills and their kids' college tuition. And they expect us to listen to their issues with the same concern we would any lobbyist or corporation with a jet.
I know that some say that legislation isn't really being discussed on these flights. But appearances matter. If we want to be serious about showing our constituents that we are fighting for them--and not just for the wealthy and powerful--we can't allow a small number of special interests to be subsidizing our travel.
If there isn't enough commercial air service in a state and there is a need to take a charter flight, then we should pay the full cost of the charter. If there is not enough money in our Senate travel accounts to cover these costs, then we should increase our travel budgets. What we shouldn't do is allow lobbyists to pick up the tab.
I know this may not be a popular amendment. I know many of my colleagues will be inconvenienced if it is adopted; I will be as well. But if we are serious about cleaning up the way we do business in Washington, it is an important step for us to take. I hope my colleagues will do the right thing and support this amendment.
In closing, let me say it is obvious we are not going to be able to finish ethics reform today. I know Senator Lott and Senator Dodd are working diligently to try to get this bill back on the floor. I also am aware of the importance of the immigration bill that we are going to be considering for the next two weeks. But I have to insist that we bring this ethics and lobbying bill back to the floor as soon as practicable and that we get to work on getting a bill passed and sent over to the House. The American people expect us to take strong action to clean up the way we do business in this city. They have been waiting for a long time. It is time we got to work.