McCain Calls to Reform Pork Barrel Politics

By William Branigin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 25, 2006; 2:00 PM

A Senate committee reviewing proposals to reform lobbying today heard calls for Congress to reform its pork barrel politics by ending the practice of quietly adding pet projects known as "earmarks" to appropriations bills.

Appearing as a witness on the opening day of a Senate hearing on lobbying reform, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) was one of several senators to denounce earmarking, a practice he called "disgraceful." He outlined one of several proposals to tighten rules and require greater disclosure of lobbying activities. But he told the committee, "We're not going to fix this system until we fix the earmarks."

McCain made the comments before the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, which convened to discuss lobbying reform proposals amid a scandal surrounding the activities of Jack Abramoff, a once-powerful Republican lobbyist. Abramoff pleaded guilty earlier this month to federal charges including bribery of a congressman. His cooperation with investigators as part of a plea deal has stoked concerns on Capitol Hill that other legislators could be implicated, and Congress has responded with a flurry of legislative proposals to reform the system.

However, representatives of lobbying organizations urged the committee today not to overreact to what they described as the unscrupulous activities of one corrupt lobbyist.

And Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), the Senate minority whip, said the problem goes beyond earmarks and that solving it must start with reducing the "outrageous expense" of political campaigns.

The chairman of the committee, Sen. Susan M. Collins (R-Me.), said the actions of Abramoff and former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R-Fla.), who resigned from the House in November after pleading guilty in a separate case to federal bribery and fraud charges, "have prompted a much-needed review of legal lobbying activities that raise questions of improper influence."

As part of reform efforts, she said, "We must end the practice of allowing members to slip earmarks that have received neither scrutiny nor a vote in either the House or the Senate into the final versions of legislation."

Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.), the top Democrat on the committee, said he and McCain have proposed legislation -- the Bipartisan Lobbying Transparency and Accountability Act of 2005 -- that would require more frequent and detailed disclosure of lobbying activities "and, for the first time, full disclosure from grassroots lobbying firms paid to conduct mass television or direct mail campaigns to influence members of Congress." One such firm was used by Abramoff to conceal millions of dollars in payments that he received from overcharging Indian tribes, Lieberman said.

Other lobbying reform bills have been introduced by Sen. Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.), the Senate minority leader, and by Sen. Russell D. Feingold (D-Wis.). Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) is separately working on lobbying reform legislation on behalf of the Senate GOP leadership.

Lieberman said differences among the proposals are "reconcilable" and that "we now have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to reach agreement on a broad set of lobbying reforms that will reduce the cynicism" of many Americans toward their government. "Frankly, the status quo stinks," he said.

Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) backed the call to end earmarking, saying, "The problem is us." In the long run, he said, "we're not going to change anything 'til we change the motivation that the next election is more important than anything else."

McCain said his reform bill, among other things, requires lobbyists to disclose their involvement in congressional travel and report gifts worth more than $20. Members of Congress would be required to pay the fair market value of charter flights for travel on private airplanes and would have to file reports of meetings, tours, events or outings in which they participated while on official travel.

McCain also said that "if we don't stop the earmarking, we're not going to stop the abuses of power here in Washington." He suggested that his own party was largely responsible.

"In 1994, when the Congress was taken over by Republicans, there were 4,000 earmarks on appropriations bills," he told the committee. "Last year there were 15,000. It's disgraceful, this process."

McCain said he was especially bothered that at the end of the last congressional session, various extraneous appropriations were "larded onto the money that was supposed to be devoted to the men and women in the military and their ability to conduct the war on terror."

Citizens Against Government Waste, a fiscal watchdog group, estimates that earmarks last year cost taxpayers $27.3 billion, up from $10.1 billion in 1995, the year that Republicans took office as the majority in Congress.

McCain, who uses a broader definition of earmarks, calculates that the pork barrel projects amounted to $47 billion last year.

In testimony to the committee, lobbyists stressed that the practice of petitioning the government is protected by the Constitution.

Dick Clark, a former Democratic senator from Iowa who now heads the Aspen Institute's congressional program, expressed support for some reforms on congressional travel. "However, a total ban on privately funded travel would be a disservice to members of Congress," he said in prepared testimony.

John Engler, a former Republican governor of Michigan who now is president of the National Association of Manufacturers, said, "Whatever occurs, it is imperative that you do not overreact."

Paul A. Miller, president of the American League of Lobbyists, told the committee, "Members of our profession are as disgusted and appalled by what Mr. Abramoff has done as you are. But we should not allow the actions of a few unscrupulous operatives to paint our entire profession as 'crooks' or unscrupulous scoundrels who will stop at nothing to have their way with members of Congress."

Miller added in his prepared testimony: "Our government is not 'corrupt.' Lobbyists are not 'bribing' people; and members of Congress are not being 'bought' for campaign contributions. One man broke the law by lying, cheating and stealing from his clients. Unfortunately, he was a lobbyist."

He said he wanted to assure the panel that Abramoff was "not the norm in our profession," but "truly the exception." Any profession has "bad apples" no matter what rules are in place, he said.

"Unfortunately, we often find our bad apples on the front page of every newspaper, because frankly, scandal sells," Miller said.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company