WASHINGTON – Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch cast one of only two votes against an ethics reform bill that supporters are saying would be the most sweeping reform of congressional rules since Watergate. The bill to ban gifts, meals and travel funded by lobbyists and to force lawmakers to identify which special-interest funding they inserted in bills passed the Senate late Thursday 96-2, with Hatch and Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., opposing it. Hatch says he was making a “protest vote” because the bill – which was co-managed
by fellow Utah Republican Sen. Bob Bennett – was being loaded up with amendments at the last minute and contained some unconstitutional provisions. “Im all for ethics and greater transparency,” Hatch said, but he said he was “bothered” by the process.
Oh, that bothersome process! Poor Orrin, the only principled man in the Senate, registering his lonely “protest vote” against the most important Congressional reform bill to come along in decades.
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“I doubt even one member of the Senate truly grasped the totality of this bill,” Hatch said. “I know some may think that’s standard procedure with bills in the Senate. But it isn’t with me, and it’s especially troubling with a bill that’s titled the Legislative Transparency and Accountability Act. There was nothing transparent about this.”
Hatch voted for several amendments late Thursday, and voted for a similar ethics bill last year.
Critics were stunned by Hatch’s vote.
“It’s incomprehensible to me that any member of Congress would vote against increasing transparency,” said Ellen Miller, executive director of the nonpartisan Sunlight Foundation. “Particularly, Republican members who would have incentive to show they were willing to be responsive to the public’s disgust over the scandals” that rocked Capitol Hill last year.
“He says one thing and does another,” Utah Democratic Party Chairman Wayne Holland chipped in. “He seems to personify the very definition of duplicitous. A protest against ethics reform is as silly on its face as it is in its substance. It’s a little embarrassing.”
Hatch says such criticism is unfair.
“It’s incomprehensible that anyone would vote for this the way it was done,” Hatch said, adding critics should bide their time. “When they get a bill that is completely valid, Orrin’s going to be all for it.”
Part of the legislation would have mandated that members of Congress pay charter flight costs when reimbursing an organization for flights on private planes; members now only have to pay commercial airfare costs for the flights.
Hatch has taken 42 trips since 2000 on privately paid flights, at a cost of nearly $40,000, according to a Political Moneyline database.
Hatch says that provision would cost taxpayers more.
Coburn opposed the bill because it did not include his amendment banning special set-asides benefiting family members.
“The problem in Washington is not lobbyists; the problem is us,” Coburn said. “Unfortunately, many of the provisions in this bill are focused on the wrong problem.”
Bennett succeeded in getting a provision removed that was intended to shine light on so-called Astroturf lobbying – well-heeled efforts by lobbyists to stir up local support or opposition for a bill.
Bennett argued that community groups or church groups that wanted to organize and voice an opinion on a piece of legislation would have to report their activities and, if they failed to do so, could be fined up to $200,000.
Bennett urged his colleagues to “reaffirm that the zenith of the Bill of Rights is free speech, the right to petition your government for redress of your grievances, and the right to peacefully assemble, all of which is involved in grass-roots lobbying and none of which should be criminalized.”
Groups as diverse as the American Civil Liberties Union and the Family Research Council opposed the reporting requirements.