By Jeffrey H. Birnbaum and Thomas B. Edsall
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, April 27, 2006
The scandal surrounding disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff has been a Washington obsession for months, but Republican lawmakers who returned from a two-week recess this week said they felt free to pass a relatively tepid ethics bill because their constituents rarely mention the issue.
The House is scheduled to vote today on ethics legislation to increase lobbyists' disclosures and require lawmakers to own up to the earmarks, or narrow projects, that they insert into appropriations bills. But the measure would not restrict the gifts or meals provided by lobbyists as House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) had proposed in January, nor would it expand the number of enforcers of lobbying rules and laws.
Lawmakers acknowledge that the bill is more limited in its scope and impact than the provisions promised by congressional leaders immediately after Abramoff's guilty plea to federal charges of bribery, conspiracy, tax evasion and mail fraud nearly four months ago. But they say they do not feel compelled to push more stringent measures partly because voters do not appear to be demanding them. "We're all being rushed into a bill," said Rep. David L. Hobson (R-Ohio). "We panicked, and we let the media get us panicked."
Rep. Nancy L. Johnson (R-Conn.), a former ethics committee chairwoman, said passage of the bill will have no political consequences because "people are quite convinced that the rhetoric of reform is just political."
Some Republican leaders assert that lawmakers are hearing little from constituents about the congressional corruption scandal, even though it has received considerable media attention. Jo Maney, spokeswoman for Rep. David Dreier (R-Calif.), a chief architect of the House ethics bill, said: "Many members have told him [Dreier] that they are not hearing about corruption and lobbying reform at home. They hear more about immigration, gas prices." Still, Dreier and Hastert "feel strongly" that the ethics bill "is the right thing to do" and that it will "improve the public's perception of the integrity of the House of Representatives," Maney added.
A Washington Post-ABC News poll this month showed that 63 percent of Americans called "corruption in Washington" important to their vote. Democrats are eager to use the lobbying controversy as part of their campaign to win back control of Congress this year, and they contend that the corruption issue can be a powerful Election Day weapon.
A poll this month by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press showed the public giving Democrats an edge on the ethics issue. Twenty-eight percent of Americans said they think the Republican Party governs in an honest and ethical way, compared with 36 percent who said the Democrats are more ethical, according to the survey. By a ratio of 45 percent to 28 percent, respondents said that Republicans are influenced more by lobbyists and special interests than are Democrats.
Democratic strategists say that the ethics issue does not carry a lot of weight by itself. They say that, to win over voters, they must link Republicans' alleged coziness with lobbyists to failures in Washington to address specific public needs, such as health-care coverage and economic security. "It is up to us to show the public what this means to them," said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). For example, she said: "If [we] want to reduce our dependence on foreign oil, and therefore improve our national security situation, you can't do it if you are a Republican because you are too wedded to the oil companies."
Republicans won back control of the House and the Senate in 1994 after making Democratic political corruption part of the larger issue of arrogance of power and poor performance in government, according to Michael J. Malbin, executive director of the nonpartisan Campaign Finance Institute. The Democrats' burden now, he said, is to make that larger connection to voters.
Republicans counter that Democrats have ethical problems of their own that blunt their effort to portray the GOP as the party of corruption. Two Democratic congressmen are facing separate, official inquiries about their connections to private pleaders: Reps. Alan B. Mollohan (W.Va.) and William J. Jefferson (La.). Both say they have done nothing wrong.
"The Democrat party runs a real risk here of being the pot that calls the kettle black," said Tracey Schmitt, press secretary of the Republican National Committee.
Some lawmakers and political analysts believe that voters could punish incumbents during the November elections if Congress passes a minimalist ethics bill. The chances of such a backlash could rise, these critics say, if there are more indictments or guilty pleas later this year. Abramoff and two former aides to Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) are cooperating with federal authorities in a wide-ranging investigation of political favors done in return for gifts, trips, payments and campaign contributions. DeLay, a once-powerful House majority leader, is fighting a criminal indictment in Texas on charges of political money laundering.
Some congressional historians assert that GOP leaders would be taking a risk in assuming that the lobbying bill is of such low voter priority that they could push through a modest plan without paying a political cost. "When you combine [the ethics issue] with the general dissatisfaction with the way in which we are governed," said L. Sandy Maisel, a professor of government at Colby College, "I think the breaking point might be near."
Today, the House plans to vote on a bill that would require lobbyists to file quarterly instead of semiannual disclosures and to include in those reports the donations they give to federal candidates and political action committees. Lobbyists would also have to make public the amount of any gift that they give to lawmakers or congressional aides. In addition, appropriations bills would have to list any earmarks that they contain, as well as the sponsors of those projects. Ethics training would become mandatory in the House under the legislation.
Government watchdog groups have complained that the legislation would not change much about how lawmakers and lobbyists interact. "It's a reform bill in name only, and they're hoping no one will notice," said Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.
Tom Fitton, president of Judicial Watch, a conservative public interest organization, said one reason for the bill's weakness is that the public is not riled up about lobbying abuses. "The American people take the view that both parties are involved and there's not much surprising about it," he said.
Staff writer Jonathan Weisman contributed to this report.