By Jeffrey H. Birnbaum
Monday, October 30, 2006
Odds are that lobbying in the House of Representatives is about to get harder.
If Democrats gain the 15 seats they need to win control of the House -- and most analysts think they will -- one of the first things the new House will do is restrict or end outright a slew of lobbying practices.
In a little-publicized statement, Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), the House Democratic leader, has promised to change the chamber's rules to reflect the provisions of her not-so-modestly-named Honest Leadership and Open Government Act of 2006. The months-old measure would, among other things, prohibit House members from accepting gifts and travel from lobbyists or from organizations that employ lobbyists.
The Pelosi bill includes changes not only to House rules but also to federal laws. Any changes in law would have to be approved by the Senate and the president before they could take effect. But the House can alter its own rules anytime, and that's precisely what Pelosi proposes to do as the House's first official act next year -- after it selects her as speaker.
Congress has come close to reining in lobbyists before, and it wound up doing nothing of the kind. Several of the proposals in Pelosi's bill (H.R. 4682, for you wonks out there) were wending their way through the system but died after lawmakers concluded -- incorrectly, it turned out -- that voters didn't care much about congressional "corruption." Pelosi's bill, with small modifications, was tested in the House and lost by just three votes.
Now, spokeswoman Jennifer Crider said, Pelosi is committed to passing "the elements within the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act that are within the House rules." Any variations from the original, Crider said, would be "slight."
That would be a major development for K Street. If the House rules were altered in ways that even came close to Pelosi's preferences, lobbying of House members would be changed significantly and immediately. The new rules would apply as soon as they were approved by a simple majority.
The Senate would be trickier. Election analysts say it's a tossup whether Democrats will control the Senate next year. If it does, Jim Manley, spokesman for Senate Democratic Leader Harry M. Reid, said, "Ethics reform will be a priority." But he noted that a two-thirds vote of the Senate is needed to modify its rules, which would make a quick assault on lobbying difficult.
Not so in the House. The biggest change proposed by Pelosi would be the ban on gifts and travel. Pelosi would prohibit House members and their staff from using corporate jets for travel taken as part of their official duties. She would also prevent them from taking anything of value from lobbyists, including meals, tickets and entertainment.
The ban would apply not just to lobbyists' gifts but also to gifts from nongovernmental groups that hire lobbyists. House members and their aides would also be barred from accepting transportation or lodging for any trips that are funded, arranged, requested, planned or even attended by lobbyists.
These are all reactions to the Jack Abramoff scandal. Abramoff infamously took Rep. Robert W. Ney (R-Ohio) on a golfing trip to Scotland on a private jet. The result was a series of convictions on fraud and public corruption charges against Ney, Abramoff and others in federal court this year.
In an attempt to slow the revolving door between the public and private sectors, Pelosi would deprive lawmakers-turned-lobbyists of a few of their congressional perks. She would eliminate the House rule that gives access to the House gym, the House floor and its cloak rooms to former members of Congress who are registered to lobby -- access that was temporarily taken away earlier this year.
Pelosi would also require House members and their aides to disclose to the House ethics committee whenever they are negotiating for jobs in the private sector. The disclosure would have to be made within three business days after the talks begin.
Because of the notorious Bridge to Nowhere in Alaska and other controversial pork barrel projects, reform-minded lawmakers have been pressing to make it more difficult to slip narrowly focused spending provisions into legislation. Taking up their cause, Pelosi would end the practice of adding such measures to bills after House-Senate negotiators have completed their work. She would also insist that bills be made available to the public at least 24 hours before they could be voted on by the full House; some types of bills would have to be available for three days.
In addition, Pelosi would broaden a rule change adopted by the House this year that would force lawmakers to disclose the sponsors of "earmarked" spending and tax measures -- and to reveal their details -- before the bills that contain them can become law.
The Pelosi bill would crack down on lobbyists directly by creating an Office of Public Integrity. The new agency, which would be overseen by the House inspector general, would audit and investigate lobbyists' periodic filings and refer any problems they find to the U.S. attorney's office. Currently there is little if any serious enforcement of lobbying-disclosure laws.
The Pelosi measure would also make it tougher for Congress to spend public money in ways that widen the budget deficit. She would bar the House from taking up major budget bills that increase the government's deficit, at least compared to the latest estimate from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office.
Pelosi would even stop the Democrats from doing what Republicans did to help solidify their majority -- at least when it comes to dealing with lobbyists. Republican leaders pressured major lobbying offices and trade associations in town to hire former Republican staffers and lawmakers in senior positions. That effort, known as the K Street Project, was designed to increase the flow of campaign contributions to Republican candidates and causes.
Pelosi would specifically prohibit House members from using their official actions to influence any employment decisions "on the basis of partisan political affiliation."
None of the provisions would be implemented until early next year, when the new Congress convenes. And if history is a guide, lobbyists and their lawmaker friends will probably manage to water down at least some of them before they come to a vote.
But if Democrats win a congressional majority in next week's elections, a leading reason will be the public's disgust with congressional ethics, or lack thereof. It would only make sense for the new leadership to respond by loosening the links that bind lawmakers and lobbyists.
Jeffrey Birnbaum writes about the intersection of government and business every other Monday. His e-mail address email@example.com.