How to Do Nothing, Washington-Style

By Ruth Marcus
Tuesday, May 30, 2006

The Gulfstream II had everything a congressman getting a free golf trip to Scotland could want. "State of the art entertainment center," boasted a description of the jet's elegant appointments. "Complete bar service. . . . Rich mahogany woodwork . " For the $91,465 charter, lobbyist Jack Abramoff got his money's worth -- or, as was his style, other people's money's worth: in this case, two Indian tribes and a Russian vodka distributor.

The charter details were part of the evidence introduced last week during the trial of David Safavian at the federal courthouse in Washington. A former General Services Administration official, Safavian is accused of lying to investigators about whether Abramoff had business before the agency when he invited Safavian along for the ride. Also on board, and shown to the jury in a photograph that captured him reading the newspaper in a plush captain's chair, was Rep. Bob Ney (R-Ohio).

A few blocks away, the purveyors of business as usual known as the United States Congress were killing lobbying reform in the way Washington does best: with the silent stiletto of procedure.

The latest lethal jab took the form of appointing Senate members of a conference committee that is supposed to blend the inadequate Senate version of lobbying reform with the even more feeble House proposal.

And guess who's not coming to conference: The chairman, Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), and ranking Democrat Sen. Joseph Lieberman (Conn.), of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, which shares jurisdiction over the subject with the Senate Rules and Administration Committee.

Collins and Lieberman had backed much tougher lobbying reform -- especially an independent ethics enforcement office -- than the Senate ultimately passed. No wonder Senate leaders didn't want them anywhere near the conference.

Yes, one member who serves on both panels is a conferee, but if you think Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) will be a champion of lobbying reform against the feckless House, I've got a bridge to nowhere to sell you. If you're counting on Rules Chairman Trent Lott (R-Miss.) to be as tough as Collins and Lieberman, I'll throw in a railroad to nowhere, too.

This is the way the push for lobbying reform ends, not with a bang but a maneuver -- indecipherable to outsiders but quietly effective. As for the House, the leadership there considers the matter so pressing that it hasn't yet gotten around to naming conferees.

Washington has many ways of avoiding action while pretending the opposite. Nearly all of them have been deployed in the cause of evading effective lobbying reform:

· Run out the clock. Remember the frantic push for lobbying reform in the weeks after Abramoff's guilty plea? The anti-reform forces were betting you wouldn't.

· Avoid the subject . One of the cushiest perks that lawmakers get is flying the corporate skies at cut-rate prices. When they borrow a corporate jet, they only have to pay the company the price of a first-class ticket.

But both houses managed to avoid the unpleasantness of having to vote on proposals to require lawmakers to pay full freight. In the Senate, a bipartisan cabal led by Majority Leader Bill Frist (Tenn.) and Minority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.) cut off debate before such an amendment could be offered. Asked about that during a visit to The Post last month, Reid said such flights were a complicated topic that required hearings -- this after Rules and Homeland Security had just finished lobbying reform hearings.

· Rig the rules. This subset of "avoid the subject" is a specialty of the House. Under the version of democracy practiced by House Republicans, votes are permitted only when the conclusion is pre-ordained; real consideration of alternatives is forbidden; and troublesome amendments, even from party members, are disallowed.

On lobbying reform, Republicans refused to permit floor votes on establishing an independent ethics office, on corporate flights, and on increasing the waiting period for lawmakers to lobby their former colleagues. A simple up-or-down vote on the Democratic alternative was entirely off the table, of course.

· Stack the deck. See discussion of Senate conferees, above.

· Show no shame. This is an essential element of the effort to con ordinary citizens into thinking that something has been accomplished. In January, House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) demanded an end to privately subsidized congressional travel and free meals and other goodies from lobbyists. Last month, after the House passed a measure that met neither of those goals, Hastert was unabashed about patting himself and his colleagues on the back.

Congress has left town for its Memorial Day recess, but the Safavian trial continues. Today, Neil Volz, the former Ney chief of staff turned Abramoff lobbyist turned admitted felon, is to take the stand to describe, among other things, the Scotland trip.

But don't count on that -- or a lawmaker's freezer stuffed with cash, or a congressional Rolls-Royce underwritten by a defense contractor -- to produce the real change that Congress is so doggedly resisting.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company