By Jeffrey H. Birnbaum and Jim VandeHei
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, June 26, 2006
When Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) announced his resignation as majority leader in January -- soon after lobbyist Jack Abramoff pleaded guilty to corruption charges -- House Republicans panicked. Dozens of GOP lawmakers, fearing a political backlash, flooded the office of House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) with urgent pleas for lobbying reform.
Their message was clear: Hastert needed to champion legislation to crack down on unethical behavior and impose tough new restrictions on lobbyists and congressional perks. Hastert, who had previously shown scant interest in the issue, responded with proposals that surprised longtime reformers with their reach: a ban on privately funded travel by lawmakers and severe restrictions on lobbyist-paid meals.
"We need to reform the rules so that it is clear, beyond a shadow of a doubt, what is ethically acceptable," Hastert said at a news conference 10 days after DeLay stepped down.
But that was then. Six months later, the legislation has slowed to a crawl. Along the way, proposals such as Hastert's that would sharply limit commonplace behavior on Capitol Hill have been cast aside. Committee chairmen once predicted the bill would be finished in March, but the Senate did not pass its ethics bill until March 29 and the House passed its version May 3. The House has yet to name negotiators to draft the final package.
Legislators and public-interest group advocates say the most likely result this year is a minimalist package that would allow members to say they have responded to the Abramoff situation and other scandals but would do little to crimp their ability to accept lobbyist favors.
The change, these people say, reflects a calculation that the political storm has mostly passed and that the need for more intrusive efforts to alter the congressional culture and the lobbyist-lawmaker relationship is less urgent.
"Initially, I worried that Congress would do this bill too quickly and that it might not be as well-thought-out as it needed to be," said Susan Collins (R-Maine), chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, which had partial jurisdiction over the legislation. "That fear seems ludicrous now."
House Majority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) illustrates the complex politics buffeting the proposals to overhaul lobbyist rules. At a private meeting in Hastert's office before the speaker's news conference, Blunt voiced support, according to others in the room. But when the moment came for him to stand next to the speaker in front of the cameras, Blunt had vanished. Locked in a tight race to replace DeLay, Blunt was among the first congressional leaders to perceive the disconnect between lawmakers' public calls for change and their private desire to keep things as they were.
"This is an area where we have to listen very carefully to the members," Blunt later explained.
They have said they want a go-slow approach, and they have gotten their way. Lawmakers considered a range of provisions, including a ban on privately funded junkets, a prohibition against taking gifts and an end to steeply discounted travel by private jet. Instead, they decided to strengthen and double the number of lobbyists' public disclosure reports, and they discarded -- or will probably discard -- almost everything else.
One exception is in the Senate-passed bill. Unlike the House version, it would bar lobbyists from providing gifts and meals to senators and their aides. The House bill would curtail big-money election groups, called 527s, but Senate Democrats and a few Republicans are working to kill this change.
Almost from the start, House and Senate leaders misread the wishes of their rank and file, lawmakers and lobbyists agreed. Most of the entreaties that deluged Hastert's office, for instance, came from lawmakers with difficult reelection fights and did not reflect the views of the GOP majority. Those members enjoyed lobbyist-provided meals and trips and did not worry that angry voters might turn them out of office for accepting them.
In fact, Blunt's chief opponent for majority leader, Rep. John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), gained a clear advantage in the race by publicly calling Hastert's travel ban "childish" and by privately assuring colleagues that he would weaken the bill if he were elected. Rep. John Shadegg (R-Ariz.), the candidate for majority leader who championed the most dramatic changes, finished a distant third.
During a tense, hours-long, members-only meeting two weeks after Hastert's news conference, House Republicans complained bitterly about almost every aspect of the proposed measure, participants said. The protests prompted Shadegg to chide his colleagues for overreacting at first and then plotting to do nothing in the end.
The Senate's ethics legislation followed a similar path. Soon after Hastert's announcement, Senate Democrats and Republicans separately proclaimed their bold intentions at major media events. To prove their resolve, the GOP spotlighted the involvement of campaign finance reformer Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). The Democratic Party enlisted high-profile help from one of its rising stars, Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.).
"I was eager to participate; I was excited about it," Obama recalled. "The timing was good not just for the party but for the country."
But soon after, senators with the most seniority raised the largest number of objections to limits on meals or travel. In private meetings, participants said, veteran Republicans and Democrats said they were offended that anyone would think they could be bought for mere hospitality. They also objected to altering Senate rules when the most egregious behavior had occurred in the House, including the then-recent bribery conviction of Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R-Calif.).
Powerful lobby groups also campaigned to protect their prerogatives. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers, and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee lobbied vigorously against the travel ban, asserting how useful it is for lawmakers to get out of Washington to see the impact of their policies.
"We had meetings and meetings and meetings, and we were going to move forward," McCain recalled. "But a sense of urgency disappeared as we went through the committee process. I stopped having any meaningful input."
A steady stream of proposals favored by McCain and Obama was rejected by Senate panels. One would have established an independent office of public integrity to oversee ethics enforcement. Another would have forced lawmakers to pay charter fares for charter flights, rather than first-class ticket prices.
Government watchdog groups had assumed that members of Congress would not risk the public's ire by opposing such basic changes. But they were wrong; voters rarely complained, lawmakers said.
"The reason why it didn't happen was that members didn't feel a sufficient amount of pressure to change the way they do business," McCain said in reference to large-scale reform. "There's a belief among my colleagues that our constituents are not concerned."
The lack of powerful public backing for the legislation has prompted recriminations. "The advocates of reform utterly failed to mobilize public support," Collins observed.
Joan Claybrook, president of the liberal organization Public Citizen, said her group and others instigated thousands of e-mails to Congress and called it "totally ridiculous" that lawmakers place blame on her coalition for not producing more protests.
Nevertheless, the legislation remains in limbo and, so far at least, a shadow of its initial expectations. Several of the bill's earliest advocates, such as McCain and Obama, voted against it as a waste of congressional time. "We missed an opportunity," Obama said.
Even defenders of the legislation call it only a minor improvement over current law. David Dreier (R-Calif.), one of the architects of the House-passed bill, said he would like to "pursue more reform" as soon as the measure passes.