Congressional ethics an issue in Minnesota Senate race

Amy Klobuchar
DFL Senate candidate Amy Klobuchar answers a question at a forum at the University of Minnesota.
MPR Photo/Laura McCallum

(AP) Seizing on a seemingly endless string of Washington scandals in recent months, both of Minnesota's leading U.S. Senate candidates are trying to make congressional ethics an issue in their hotly contested race.

Rep. Mark Kennedy
U.S. Rep. Mark Kennedy has proposed a lifetime ban on former members of Congress becoming lobbyists. "I think voters want people who are going to serve them, not looking for a stepping stone to becoming a lobbyist," Kennedy said Thursday.
MPR File Photo/Tom Scheck

Endorsed Democratic candidate Amy Klobuchar on Thursday proposed a series of what she called "Minnesota-style" ethics policies for members of Congress - including a mimic of the state's so-called gift ban, which would prevent lawmakers from accepting gifts, free meals or travel from lobbyists.

"The pervasive influence of money in Washington is how we ended up with health policy written by the pharmaceutical companies, and an energy policy written by big oil," Klobuchar, the Hennepin County attorney, said in a speech at the University of Minnesota's Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs.

The Republican candidate, U.S. Rep. Mark Kennedy, is also talking about Congressional corruption, and has proposed a lifetime ban on former members of Congress becoming lobbyists. "I think voters want people who are going to serve them, not looking for a stepping stone to becoming a lobbyist," Kennedy said Thursday.

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With numerous public opinion polls showing voter approval of Congress at dismal levels, candidates from both parties can be expected to make an issue of congressional ethics. It's a time-tested campaign strategy, and was a crucial piece of the Republican takeover of Congress in 1994 - a coup that Democrats are hoping to reverse this year.

"We've heard a lot of this before," said Larry Jacobs, a professor at the Humphrey Institute.

The last year has seen several members of Congress brought down by indictments and investigations, including former House Majority Leader Tom Delay, who recently resigned his seat. Lawmakers from both parties have felt the sting, though Republicans as the party in power have faced greater criticism.

In response, Kennedy and Klobuchar have both rolled out a number of proposals. In addition to his lobbyist ban, Kennedy said he favored cutting taxes and making the federal tax code simpler. In addition, reducing federal spending would lessen the opportunity for special interests to exploit the system, he said.

Klobuchar also called Thursday for a more open process of rewarding government contracts; online public disclosure of federal lobbyist spending; and an independent office to enforce ethics rules.

Both candidates also criticized so-called congressional earmarks, the process through which lawmakers can quietly slip pet spending projects through the legislative process.

In addition to floating their own proposals, both candidates - mostly through surrogates - have tried to cast aspersions on the other's ability to be a crusader for congressional ethics.

Republicans have seen some hypocrisy in Klobuchar's bemoaning of the influence of special interests. Prior to her election as county attorney her work as a lawyer in private practice included lobbying for corporations including the Ford Motor Co. and telecommunications giant Global Crossing Ltd.

"You need to watch what Amy Klobuchar does, not what she says," Kennedy campaign manager Pat Shortridge said in a recent press release.

Democrats hit right back, pointing out that Kennedy's spot in the House Republican majority the last six years make his criticism of congressional ethics ring hollow. They also point out that last week, he was the beneficiary of a fundraiser hosted by former Louisiana congressman Bob Livingston, who went on to a lucrative career as a lobbyist.

"Where was Mark Kennedy when his own House leadership was making a mockery of ethics and accountability in Congress?" said Karl Frisch, spokesman for the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee.