A Start on Lobbying Reform

Monday, March 6, 2006

THIS WEEK the Senate plans to take up lobbying reform, melding two measures that would be an improvement on the current system of inadequate disclosure and lax rules. But the measures that emerged from two Senate committees last week don't go nearly far enough to fix the abuses that got the attention of the public -- and therefore lawmakers -- in the first place. The floor debate will feature a package of critical amendments on strengthening enforcement, cracking down on the cut-rate use of corporate aircraft, and imposing limits on gifts and travel -- in all, giving senators a chance to produce a truly significant lobbying reform measure for the House to act on.

Especially in the area of disclosure, the proposals from the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee and the Rules Committee would be a significant, though far from perfect, advance over the status quo. The governmental affairs measure would require lobbying firms to report what they spend on the fast-growing area of grass-roots lobbying -- that is, ginning up citizens to contact lawmakers -- which has previously been exempted by disclosure rules.

Disclosure would be more frequent and more detailed, including, for example, more details about travel itineraries and participants; reporting of lobbyists' contributions to lawmakers' charities or events honoring them; and gifts from lobbyists. Still, there are serious omissions, particularly the failure to require lobbyists to provide information about what congressional or executive branch offices they lobbied.

And disclosure alone isn't adequate. The measures would allow lawmakers to continue to fly the corporate skies, using company aircraft with on-board lobbyists while paying far less than the true cost of such flights; this should be prohibited, not just disclosed. Similarly, neither measure does enough to clamp down on travel funded by companies or other entities with interests before Congress. The governmental affairs bill would still permit lawmakers to accept gifts from lobbyists such as tickets to sporting events; there's no excuse for letting elected officials accept such freebies.

The biggest disappointment is the failure of a majority on the governmental affairs committee to support the call by the chairman and the ranking Democrat, Sens. Susan Collins (Maine) and Joseph I. Lieberman (Conn.), to create a stronger enforcement mechanism to police abuses by both lawmakers and lobbyists. The pair wanted a new Office of Public Integrity, which would review documents, accept outside complaints, refer matters to the Justice Department, conduct investigations and make recommendations to the House and Senate ethics committees. The ultimate decision about whether rules had been violated and whether punishment should be imposed would remain up to the ethics committees. That's as it should be.

But it's no attack on the dedication or integrity of lawmakers with the misfortune to serve on the ethics committees to say that the current system inevitably tends toward complacency and partisan gridlock. When the issue comes up again on the Senate floor, senators should remember: Real lobbying reform requires changes not just in the rules but in making certain they are enforced.

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