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For Would-Be Lobbying Reformers, Money Habit Is Hard to Kick

By Dana Milbank
Thursday, January 26, 2006

Paul Miller had the bad luck to ascend to the presidency of the American League of Lobbyists just as Jack Abramoff was descending from the profession. And so it was that the young and earnest Wisconsinite found himself before the Senate governmental affairs committee yesterday explaining why "this is not a widespread scandal."

"Our government is not corrupt, lobbyists are not bribing people, and members of Congress are not being bought for campaign contributions," pleaded Miller, wearing a boyish hairdo and the gray pinstripe suit, French-blue shirt and wingtips of his profession. "I don't think we can say with certainty that the current system is broken."

To the Abramoff-panicked lawmakers, Miller might as well have been asserting the airworthiness of pigs.

Miller and his cohort -- the ones in the gallery with the leather portfolios -- were about the only ones in the room who thought everything was hunky-dory. The senators seemed virtually unanimous in their view that, when it came to influence peddling, "the status quo stinks," as Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.), the recipient of more than $2 million from lobbyists and lawyers in recent years, succinctly put it.

As the hearing kicked off the congressional debate on lobbying reform, the lawmakers had no difficulty conceding they had a problem. But there was yawning disconnect between the problem and the proposed remedies. While most everybody agreed that Congress was being subverted by lawmakers' reliance on lobbyists for campaign cash, the proposals getting the most serious consideration yesterday were relatively minor: whether to ban lobbyist-paid lunches or a few million dollars' worth of privately funded congressional trips.

"I don't believe lobbying reform's the problem; I believe Congress is," committee dissident Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) lectured his colleagues. "We ought to be real frank with the American people. We're going to do a lot of window dressing, but in the long run we're not going to change anything till we change the motivation that the next election is more important than anything else."

Sen. Richard J. Durbin (Ill.), the Democratic whip, found himself in a rare convergence with Coburn. "We are carping on trifles here," he testified. "Why is it that we warm up to all these lobbyists? It isn't for a meal. . . . We know when it comes time to finance our campaigns, we're going to be knocking on those same doors."

Registered lobbyists have served as treasurers of at least 868 political committees, according to the Center for Public Integrity, including the campaign committees or leadership PACs of at least 39 sitting members of Congress. And virtually all members benefit from lavish fundraisers arranged by lobbyists or contributions from lobbyists that have exceeded $100 million in recent years. This money frightens challengers out of the race -- a main reason 98 percent of incumbent House members won reelection in 2004.

The senators yesterday sounded like addicts, powerless to overcome their reliance on lobbyist cash. "It's out of control," lamented Sen. George V. Voinovich (R-Ohio), a recipient of $573,000 from lobbyists and lawyers over five years, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. "We all hate it. And it's about time we collectively think about how we can get off the treadmill."

"I'm afraid nobody will take me seriously unless we can also find some way to do something further about campaign spending and fundraising," fretted Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), recipient of $314,000.

New Mexico Republican Pete V. Domenici ($196,000) proposed limiting fundraising to a lawmaker's home state. Alaska Republican Ted Stevens ($229,000) suggested a constitutional amendment.

But these cries for help fell on the deaf ears of Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), the man designated by Senate GOP leadership to draft a lobbying reform bill. Santorum, in a tough reelection race, ranked fifth out of the 535 members of Congress in receipts from lobbyists and lawyers ($519,000 last year alone).

"We need to look at a variety of different things -- look at gifts, we need to look at meals, we need to look at travel," Santorum testified. He didn't say a peep about campaign financing.

Instead, he delivered a campaign speech. "I have a long history of being involved in congressional reform," he said, boasting that "those of you who frequent the Senate restaurant and barbershops now know that they are no longer taxpayer-subsidized."

If Santorum's presentation lacked details, it didn't seem to matter. Only two of the 16 senators on the committee sat through the entire hearing. National Association of Manufacturers chief John Engler, missing when called to the witness table, explained later that he had been taking "a quick break."

Engler, like Miller, assured the nervous lawmakers that all was well. "Additional rules and laws weren't needed" to catch the bad guys, he advised. And besides, he said, "working meals" are legitimate. "A hamburger, I don't think, is going to change the mind of members of this committee."

Engler didn't say what might happen if that hamburger came with a side of campaign cash.

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