Sham Lobbying Reform

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

DO YOU remember, back when the spotlight was on Jack Abramoff, how House Republican leaders pledged to get tough on lobbyists? Well, you may; apparently they don't. The House plans this week to take up the Lobbying Accountability and Transparency Act of 2006, a watered-down sham that would provide little in the way of accountability or transparency. If the Senate-passed measure was a disappointment, the House version is simply a joke -- or, more accurately, a ruse aimed at convincing what the leaders must believe is a doltish public that the House has done something to clean up Washington.

Privately paid travel, such as the lavish golfing trips to Scotland that Mr. Abramoff arranged for members? "Private travel has been abused by some, and I believe we need to put an end to it," said Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.). But that was January; this is now. Privately funded trips wouldn't be banned under the House bill, just "suspended" until Dec. 15 (yes, just after the election) while the House ethics committee, that bastion of anemic do-nothingness, ostensibly develops recommendations.

Meals and other gifts from lobbyists? "I believe that it's also very important for us to proceed with a significantly stronger gift ban, which would prevent members and staff from personally benefiting from gifts from lobbyists," said Rules Committee Chairman David Dreier (R-Calif.) in -- you guessed it -- January. Now, Mr. Dreier's bill would leave the current gift limits unchanged.

Flights on corporate jets? No problem; the bill wouldn't permit corporate lobbyists to tag along, but other corporate officials are welcome aboard while lawmakers get the benefits of private jets at the cost of a first-class ticket.

Mr. Dreier's Rules Committee took an already weak House bill and made it weaker. From the version of the measure approved by the House Judiciary Committee, it dropped provisions that would require lobbyists to disclose fundraisers they host for candidates, campaign checks they solicit for lawmakers and parties they finance (at conventions, for example) in honor of members.

The bill would require more frequent reporting by lobbyists and somewhat more detail. Lobbyists would have to list their campaign contributions -- information that's available elsewhere but nonetheless convenient to have on disclosure forms. And some additional information would have to be disclosed -- meals or gifts that lobbyists provide to lawmakers, along with contributions to their charities. Some lawmakers want to strengthen the bill. But will the Rules Committee allow their proposals to be considered? Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.) would require lawmakers to pay market rates for corporate charters. Mr. Shays and Rep. Martin T. Meehan (D-Mass.) would supplement the paralyzed House ethics committee with an independent congressional ethics office -- needed now more than ever. House Democrats have a far more robust version of lobbying reform that deserves an up-or-down vote. Having produced a bill this bad, the Rules Committee ought at least to give lawmakers an opportunity to vote for something better.

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