An End to Treadmill Lobbying

By Dana Milbank
Wednesday, February 1, 2006; 6:03 PM

Well-rested members of the House of Representatives, returning from a six-week recess, settled down to work today on a full slate of urgent matters: extending the Patriot Act, trimming spending and cutting taxes.

Given that daunting choice, House leaders decided that their first order of business for the year would be to kick some old guys out of the House gymnasium.

House Rules Committee Chairman David Dreier (R-Calif.), after a three-hour huddle with his Republican colleagues, announced that he would introduce legislation that "will underscore the fact that the Republican Party has been and continues to be the party of reform." And what would this weighty reform entail? "A ban for registered lobbyists who are former members of Congress from having access to the floor of the House and to the House gymnasium," Dreier announced solemnly.

No more nonsense. It was time for lobbyists to dismount the Stairmasters and hit the showers.

Dreier's colleagues argued that the measure was a strange response to the Jack Abramoff scandal. Abramoff wasn't a former member and didn't use the gym. "I've been going to the gym for 14 years, and nobody's in there lobbying," Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.) protested as he left the meeting. "I've never seen any nefarious plots hatched on the treadmill."

It quickly became clear just how exercised Dreier's colleagues were. Rep. Zach Wamp (R-Tenn.) saw a slippery slope. Would congressmen-cum-lobbyists be kicked out of the prayer breakfasts next? "Where do you draw the line?" he demanded.

If Republicans were skeptical, Democrats were derisive when they heard about the plan. "I've been going to the gym for 24 years, and I've never been lobbied in the gym," Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said Tuesday. "Of course," he added, "I'm pretty ugly naked."

When Dreier took his proposal to the floor this afternoon, it immediately became clear he was in for a workout. Democrats wondered, given all the abuses involving lobbyist-paid meals, travel and campaign financing, the first act of the second session of the 109th Congress should involve a fitness center in the basement of the Rayburn House Office Building.

"This rules change is so minor in relation to the magnitude of the problem that it doesn't amount to a drop in the ocean," complained Rep. Louise M. Slaughter (D-N.Y.). "It's going to take a lot more than preventing former members from going to the House gym to produce an ethical Congress."

Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), who knows when there's mischief to be made, interrupted the debate with a proposal. "I suggest a possible compromise because there is a certain self interest, let's be honest, for current members," he deadpanned. "Perhaps the modification could be that any former member using a piece of equipment would have to yield to a current member."

This produced bipartisan chuckles. Dreier, losing control of the debate, puffed out his cheeks. He was getting little help, even from his own side.

Financial Services Committee Chairman Michael G. Oxley (R-Ohio), who is retiring at the end of the term and is himself a prime candidate to join the lobbying trade, spoke of the bonds that members form as they stretch and strengthen their muscles.

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