Kill This Bill

Wednesday, May 3, 2006

"BOLD, RESPONSIBLE, common-sense reform of our current lobbying and ethics laws is clearly needed," House Rules Committee Chairman David Dreier (R-Calif.) told his colleagues on the House floor last week. "We owe it to our constituents. We owe it to ourselves. We owe it to this institution."

Very true -- which is why House members should reject the diluted snake oil that Mr. Dreier and the GOP leadership are peddling as bold reform. Their bill, which is expected to come before the House for a vote today, is an insult to voters who the GOP apparently believes are dumb enough to be snookered by this feint. The procedures under which it is to be debated, allowing only meaningless amendments to be considered, are an insult also -- to the democratic process.

At best the bill would marginally improve the existing arrangement of minimal disclosure, laxly enforced. Reporting by lobbyists would be quarterly instead of twice yearly and slightly more detailed (with listings of lobbyists' campaign contributions -- already available elsewhere -- along with gifts to lawmakers and contributions to their charities). Nothing would crimp lawmakers' lifestyles: Still allowed would be meals, gifts (skybox seats at sporting events, say) and cut-rate flights on corporate jets. Privately sponsored travel would be suspended, but only until just after the election.

The provisions on earmarks are similarly feeble. Lawmakers who insert pet projects in spending bills would have to attach their names to them -- but that's all. If that happens, these provisions wouldn't be subject to challenge. Earmark reform that wouldn't allow a vote to stop future "Bridges to Nowhere" isn't real reform.

Matching the anemic measure is the undemocratic procedure under which it will be "debated" on the House floor. Nine amendments are to be considered, including such tough-love provisions as "voluntary ethics training" for members and holding lobbyists liable for knowingly offering gifts whose value exceeds the gift limit. (Not to worry: Legislators wouldn't be liable for accepting them.) The Rules Committee refused to permit votes on amendments to strengthen the measure, including proposals to establish an independent ethics office; to require lawmakers to pay full freight for chartered flights; or to double the waiting period for lawmakers to lobby their former colleagues from one year to two. Neither would the majority risk an up-or-down vote on the much more robust Democratic alternative.

Democrats tempted to vote for this sham because they're scared of 30-second ads that accuse them of opposing lobbying reform ought to ask themselves whether they really think so little of their constituents. As for Republicans willing to settle for this legislative fig leaf, they ought to listen to Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.). "I happen to believe we are losing our moral authority to lead this place," Mr. Shays said on the House floor last week. He was generous not to have put that in the past tense.

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