Flubbing Lobbying Reform

Friday, March 31, 2006

HERE'S A SIMPLE way to judge the lobbying reform bill just approved by the Senate: The leading advocates of reform, including the parties' two designated point men on the issue, Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Barack Obama (D-Ill.), all voted against it. Their objection to the measure, which passed the Senate 90 to 8 on Wednesday, isn't about what's in it but what's missing.

The measure improves the existing system. It would stop lobbyists from paying -- at least directly -- for meals and gifts for lawmakers. It would make it easier to identify which lawmakers sought government funding for earmarked pet projects, and easier to knock those earmarks (along with other provisions inserted at the last minute) out of House-Senate conference reports. Lawmakers would have to provide more detailed disclosure of the privately financed trips they take; under a little-noticed amendment, lobbyists couldn't arrange trips or go on them. Lobbyists would have to include on their reports the campaign contributions they make to lawmakers, the fundraisers they host and the donations they steer to lawmakers' charities. The bill would double -- from one year to two -- the waiting period for lawmakers who become lobbyists to buttonhole their former colleagues. All this is good -- as far as it goes.

But the measure doesn't include any new enforcement mechanism: an important proposal for a new Office of Public Integrity, an independent, nonpartisan entity empowered to conduct investigations and make recommendations to the House and Senate ethics committees, failed on the Senate floor, as it had in committee. It doesn't clamp down on lawmakers' ability to accept cut-rate jet travel from companies with interests before them. In fact, it doesn't put any new restrictions on the kinds of privately underwritten trips that lawmakers can accept.

It doesn't prohibit lobbyists and those they represent from footing the bill for lavish parties, at political conventions or elsewhere, honoring lawmakers. We could go on, but you get the point: Much more could, and should, have been done.

If the Senate bill is disappointing, though, the House is poised to do even worse. A proposal unveiled last month by the Republican leadership would do nothing to restrict gifts from lobbyists. It would merely impose a temporary moratorium on privately funded travel while the ethics committee studies what to do -- or, more cynically, while members wait for the storm over Jack Abramoff to blow over. It suffers from the same shortcomings as the Senate measure in terms of enforcement and corporate jets.

As the proposal moves forward -- the House Rules Committee held a hearing on it yesterday -- a critical issue will be whether and how many amendments will be permitted on the House floor to try to make it tougher. It would be the height of irony if an effort to improve the functioning of the democratic process were to take place under undemocratic conditions.

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