LEGISLATIVE TRANSPARENCY AND ACCOUNTABILITY ACT OF 2007--Continued -- (Senate - January 09, 2007)
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Mr. OBAMA. Madam President, in November, the American people sent a clear message to their representatives in Washington. After a year in which too many scandals revealed the influence special interests have in this town, the American people told us that we better clean up our act, and we better do it fast.
But it would be a mistake if we conclude this message was intended for just one party or one politician. After all, the votes hadn't even been counted in the last election before we started hearing reports that corporations were already recruiting lobbyists with Democratic connections to carry their water in the next Congress. This is why it is not enough to just change the players; we have to change the game.
Americans put their faith in us this time around because they want us to restore their faith in Government, and that means more than window dressing when it comes to ethics reform.
I was hopeful that last year's scandals would have made it obvious to us that we need meaningful ethics legislation, but last year, despite some good efforts on this side of the aisle, the bill we ended up with, I thought, was too weak. It left too many loopholes, and it did too little to enforce the rules. It was a lost opportunity. It would not have restored the people's faith in Congress, and in that end I had no choice but to vote against it.
I don't want that to happen this time. Fortunately, the substitute amendment the majority leader, Harry Reid, has offered today brings us close to the bill that will achieve his stated goal, and that is to pass the most significant ethics and lobbying reform since Watergate. We owe the American people real reform, and if we work hard this week and next, we will get it done.
This time out, we must stop any and all practices that would lead a responsible person to believe a public servant has become indebted to a lobbyist. That means a full gift and meal ban. That means prohibiting lobbyist-funded travel that is more about playing golf than learning policy. And that means closing the revolving door to ensure that Capitol Hill service, whether as a Member of Congress or as a staffer, isn't all about lining up a high-paying lobbying job. We should not tolerate a committee chairman shepherding the Medicare prescription drug bill through Congress at the same time he is negotiating a job with the pharmaceutical industry to be their top lobbyist.
The substitute bill offered by Majority Leader Reid contains many of these reforms. I thank him for working with Senator Feingold and me in crafting this package. But in two important respects, I think we still need to go further.
First, we need to go further with respect to enforcement. I will save my remarks on this subject for a later time, but I fully support the creation of an office of public integrity, as Senators Lieberman and Collins have proposed. It is similar to the independent ethics commission I proposed last February. Regardless of what approach we adopt, we have to take politics out of the initial factfinding phase of ethics investigations, and we have to ensure sufficient transparency in the findings of those investigations so the American people can have confidence that Congress can police itself.
The second area in which we need to go further is corporate jets. Myself and Senator Feingold introduced a comprehensive ethics bill that, among other things, would close the loopholes that allow for subsidized travel on corporate jets. Today, I am very pleased to see the majority leader has offered an amendment that would serve the same purpose. I fully support him in his effort.
Let me point out that I fully understand the appeal of corporate jets. Like many of my colleagues, I traveled a good deal recently from Illinois to Washington, from Chicago to downstate, from fundraisers to political events for candidates all across the country. I realize finding a commercial flight that gets you home in time to tuck in the kids at the end of a long day can be extremely difficult. This is simply an unfortunate reality that goes along with our jobs.
Yet we have to realize these corporate jets don't simply provide a welcome convenience for us; they provide undue access for the lobbyists and corporations that offer them. These companies don't just fly us around out of the goodness of their hearts. Most of the time we have lobbyists riding along with us so they can make their company's case for a particular bill or a particular vote.
It would be one thing if Congressmen and Senators paid the full rate for these flights, but we don't. We get a discount--a big discount. Right now a flight on a corporate jet usually costs us the equivalent of a first-class ticket on a commercial airplane. But if we paid the real price, the full charter rate would cost us thousands upon thousands of dollars more.
In a recent USA Today story about use of corporate jets, it was reported that over the course of 3 days in November 2005, BellSouth's jet carried six Senators and their wives to various Republican and Democratic fundraising events in the Southeast. If they had paid the full charter rate, it would have cost the Democratic and Republican campaign committees more than $40,000. But because of the corporate jet perk, it only cost a little more than $8,000.
There is going to be a lot of talk in the coming days about how important it is to ban free meals and fancy gifts, and I couldn't agree more, but if we are going to go ahead and call a $50 lunch unethical, I can't see why we wouldn't do the same for the $32,000 that BellSouth is offering in the form of airplane discounts. That is why I applaud Senator Reid on his amendment to require Members to pay the full charter rate for the use of corporate jets.
As I said, I understand that for many Members, these jets are an issue of convenience. They allow us to get home to our constituents, to our families, and to the events that are often necessary for our jobs. But in November, the American people told us very clearly they are tired of the influence special interest wields over the legislative process. The vast majority of Americans can't afford to buy cheap rides on corporate jets. They don't get to sit with us on 3-hour flights and talk about the heating bills they can't pay, or the health care costs that keep rising, or the taxes they can't afford, or their concerns about college tuition. They can't buy our attention, and they shouldn't have to. And the corporation lobbyists shouldn't be able to either. That is why we need to end this corporate jet perk if we are to pass real, meaningful ethics reform.
The truth is, we cannot change the way Washington works unless we first change the way Congress works. On November 7, voters gave us the chance to do this, but if we miss this opportunity to clean up our act and restore this country's faith in Government, the American people might not give us another opportunity.
I urge my colleagues to support both the substitute amendment and the Reid amendment to close the corporate jet loophole. I ask unanimous consent that I be added as a cosponsor to the Reid-McConnell amendment No. 3 and Reid amendment No. 4.
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