Lobbying Reform

Sunday, June 25, 2006

NEVER UNDERESTIMATE the congressional impulse to do nothing -- especially when doing something could make life less pleasant for lawmakers.

That is the unsurprising but disappointing lesson of this year's debate over lobbying reform, in which lawmakers' supposed zeal for tighter rules has disappeared faster than a Jack Abramoff jet charter on its way to a golf course. The versions of lobbying reform passed by the Senate and House are pale and paler; the House version comes with a poison pill attached (regulating political committees known as 527s) that may doom the passage of even watered-down reform.

So it's worth taking a moment to remember -- and remind lawmakers -- what all the fuss was about way back in January when lawmakers, jolted into action (or, more precisely, the appearance of action) by a string of guilty pleas, pledged swift passage of a strong measure.

Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R-Calif.) pleaded guilty to taking $2.4 million in bribes from defense contractors seeking his help in obtaining millions in earmarked funds. Mr. Abramoff pleaded guilty, at the center of a conspiracy to bribe members of Congress and their staffs with free trips, free meals and free tickets in return for legislative favors. The convictions weren't just a matter of a couple of rotten apples. On the contrary, they exposed a system that was ripe for such abuses, and that remains so today. The enormous sums at stake with earmarks and other congressional actions, combined with lax rules, scanty disclosure and feeble enforcement, provide fertile soil for future Cunninghams and Abramoffs to flourish.

Few members of Congress are as corrupt -- and on such an audacious scale -- as Mr. Cunningham, though the wads of cash found in the freezer of Rep. William J. Jefferson (D-La.) suggest Mr. Cunningham is not unique. Few lobbyists are as greedy and audacious as Mr. Abramoff, who bilked his clients, misused charities to finance his lobbying activities and opened his checkbook to purchase congressional favors.

But conduct that, while not criminal, is morally repugnant remains pervasive on Capitol Hill. And the lobbying reform measures that have passed both chambers would leave in place a system of permissive gift and travel rules, inadequate disclosure and lax enforcement.

In what may be a triumph of ethics hope over experience, Reps. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.) and Martin T. Meehan (D-Mass.) introduced yet another package of lobbying and ethics reforms last week. Their legislation would stop lawmakers from borrowing corporate jets at cut-rate prices. It would bar corporations and other private interests that lobby Congress from footing the bill for congressional travel. It would, as does the Senate version of lobbying reform, slow the revolving door by increasing the waiting period for lobbying former colleagues from one year to two. It would create an independent Office of Public Integrity to put some teeth into the enforcement of all these rules.

In short, it would be the kind of bold, meaningful reform that congressional leaders promised -- and promptly abandoned -- at the start of 2006.

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