By Jeffrey H. Birnbaum
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 28, 2006; A08
Unable to agree on major lobbying and ethics legislation, Senate and House leaders have made plans to adopt vastly scaled-back versions of the measures as part of their rules so that lawmakers can claim that they responded to recent congressional scandals.
Congress promised fast action on lobbying reforms in January, but the two chambers cannot agree over a number of provisions, including one in the House bill that would rein in independent organizations that have spent millions of dollars, mostly on behalf of Democrats, to sway federal elections. House Republicans are insisting that the groups, nicknamed 527s, be curtailed, but Democratic senators and a handful of Senate Republicans have vowed to oppose the change as part of the lobbying bill.
As a result, Congress may adjourn this year without agreeing on legislation to tighten restrictions on lobbyists' dealings with lawmakers. The House has not yet named negotiators to work with the Senate to devise a compromise package, even though its bill passed May 3. "It's on life support," Jan W. Baran, a leading Republican ethics lawyer, said of the final bill.
The legislation's potential demise is surprising, given the urgency that lawmakers of both parties placed on its passage seven months ago. Soon after disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff pleaded guilty to conspiring to corrupt public officials, the bipartisan congressional leadership promised quick action on measures including a ban on privately funded travel by lawmakers and steep restrictions on lobbyist-paid meals -- recommendations that were offered by House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.).
But rank-and-file lawmakers resisted efforts to limit such lobbyist-provided perks, and interest groups began to pressure Congress to reject the harshest proposals. As a result, deliberations slowed and the most severe proposals fell away. The Senate-passed bill would bar lobbyists from giving gifts to lawmakers, but major limitations such as a travel ban and beefed-up ethics enforcement were discarded. Instead, the House and Senate voted primarily for enhanced disclosure by lobbyists.
Now, even those changes are in jeopardy.
As a backup, senior House and Senate Republicans are working on separate resolutions that would alter congressional rules rather than rewrite lobbying regulations or ethics statutes -- a more difficult task. Their priority would be to require lawmakers for the first time to fully disclose all of the narrowly focused appropriations and tax breaks that they sponsor. These so-called earmarks, which critics deride as pork-barrel spending, have been at the center of several controversies over the past two years.
"The American people want meaningful change in the way in which Congress spends their money," a joint statement by House GOP leaders said this week. "House Republicans are committed to delivering this change." A top aide to Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) said the Senate plans to press a similar proposal if the overall ethics bill remains stalemated.
The House and Senate expect to adopt their bare-bones measures soon after Congress returns from its August recess, staffers said. If each chamber passes a few new ethics rules, aides and outsiders agreed, the prospect of passing a full-scale lobbying bill this year will be nil.
In the meantime, lawmakers will try to break the impasse on the larger legislation.
Government watchdog groups, which already opposed the House and Senate measures as inadequate, were dismissive of the GOP's fallback plans. "What we're headed for is at best very minimal changes in the House and Senate ethics rules," said Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21. "The battle for real lobbying reform will be left basically undone, and another effort is going to have to be made next year."
Lobbyists are gleeful that the bill might be dead. "We went from people wanting to eliminate lobbying, to bans, and members taking a step back and thinking about what is realistic," said Paul A. Miller, president of the American League of Lobbyists. "I'm happy where things are right now."
Then again, the legislation could be revived if the Abramoff investigation produces any indictments of lawmakers, Miller said. "That's my biggest concern," he said. "If you have an indictment of a member of Congress or more than one, then it's a foregone conclusion you are going to get lobbying reform and it's probably going to be extreme."
Baran agreed, saying, "Indictments do focus congressional minds on passing legislation." Such criminal charges, he added, "could revive the bill, especially as we get closer to the [mid-term] election."