A Rush on Lobbying Reform

Friday, January 20, 2006

AS CONGRESS hurtles toward enacting new rules on lobbying and lobbyists, two contradictory risks should be kept in mind. One is that lawmakers won't do enough to rein in the excesses of the current system. The other is that, in their zeal to outbid each other, they will go too far. Strange as it may sound -- and looking at the competing plans unveiled this week by the two parties -- it may be that both will happen.

The former danger -- not doing enough -- is by far the bigger one. Many of those in the vanguard of the push to adopt lobbying restrictions weren't exactly champing at the bit even a month ago. So it may not be too cynical to suspect that they would be as happy now with the appearance of lobbying reform as with the reality. One example: The newly energized reformers seem much more eager to eliminate lobbyist-paid lunches than to eliminate their ability to use corporate aircraft at bargain-basement rates. And it's notable that few of the proposals floating around have much to say about effective enforcement of whatever new rules are adopted.

The lesson of previous reforms is that tightening up in one area while leaving others unaddressed can simply shift abuses elsewhere. Is it really more corrupting for a lobbyist to buy a lawmaker dinner (a practice that would be barred under some of the leading proposals) than to hand him a campaign check over dinner paid for by the lawmaker's campaign committee (a practice that would remain untouched)?

More fundamentally, if lobbyists wield undue influence, much of the fault lies with other aspects of the system. The relentless hustling for campaign cash, and the role of lobbyists in collecting and delivering those checks, isn't so much a function of lobbyists and lawmakers behaving badly as of a campaign finance regime that puts both sides in this unseemly position. Absent an overhaul of that system, lobbyists should be required to disclose not just their own contributions but also the checks they have harvested from others -- the real measure of their influence. And lawmakers ought to disclose the dates, venues and attendees at their fundraisers. If dozens of lobbyists ante up to spend the weekend with a key lawmaker, that ought to be made public.

Consider, for example, the eighth annual Burns Winterfest, a Big Sky ski weekend fundraiser in March for Montana Sen. Conrad Burns (R). It's not just the "private powder" that's luring the lobbyists: As the invitation helpfully notes, "Senator Ted Stevens, Chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, and Senator Judd Gregg, Chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, have agreed to join us for the weekend as my special guests."

Another disturbing practice in which lobbyists play a facilitating role is the placing of special-interest earmarks in spending bills. Many lobbyists have sent their kids to college and beyond on the strength of their ability to get these earmarks inserted without debate or timely disclosure. But this misuse of public money, which ought to be dealt with, can't be remedied by lawmakers deciding to regulate lobbyists: They need to restrain themselves, which may turn out to be much less pleasant.

Lobbying reform in the sense of fixing the rules under which lobbyists operate is necessary -- indeed, it's long overdue. But despite the rush to vilify them, lobbyists play a useful role in educating lawmakers and staff about complex issues. Lobbying rules touch on the constitutional right of citizens to petition their government, so it's important that restrictions be drawn carefully. As lawmakers work on improving those rules, they should remember that it's not just the behavior of lobbyists that's a problem.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company