Dems Pledge to Sever Ties to Lobbyists

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By LARRY MARGASAK
The Associated Press
Friday, November 10, 2006; 5:56 PM

WASHINGTON -- On Day 1 of the next session of Congress, newly empowered Democrats are promising restrictive rules to "break the link between lobbyists and legislation." The city's veteran lobbyists know what to expect on Day 2: requests for political donations from the Capitol's new stewards.

Ethics watchdog groups are hopeful as incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., readies the Democrats' "Honest Leadership and Open Government" initiative for opening day in January. The plan includes a list of changes designed to clean up what the party calls "a culture of corruption" in Washington.

Exit polls from Tuesday's election compel Democrats to act. Three-fourths of voters said corruption and scandals were very or extremely important to them. That group tended to vote for Democratic House candidates, according to voter surveys conducted for The Associated Press and the television networks.

But some lobbyists, tired of being condemned for Washington's influence culture, remain skeptical.

"Let's not place the entire blame on lobbyists, so you can have a press conference, and then call us the next day and ask for campaign contributions," said Paul Miller, president of the American League of Lobbyists. "There are just as many Democratic lobbyists as Republican lobbyists."

Fred Wertheimer, president of the ethics watchdog group Democracy 21, acknowledged there's no magic cure, but added: "There's a difference between doing nothing and doing something. We've got a real shot here of doing something important."

Pelosi says Democrats will end the culture that allowed one-time super lobbyist Jack Abramoff to hand out perks in return for lawmaker favors for his clients, and that led to the jailing of former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham, R-Calif., for accepting $2.4 million in bribes.

The Democratic agenda would ban gifts and travel paid for by lobbyists; double, to two years, the time in which lawmakers and senior officials are barred from lobbying their former offices; force lobbyists to disclose more of their activities; and shut down efforts like the Republican "K Street Project" _ a forced alliance with lobbying firms, named for the Washington street that is home to many lobbying offices.

Both the House and Senate passed changes in lobbying laws and rules this year under Republican leadership, but the two chambers were never able to bridge their differences and produce final legislation. There's no guarantee the Democrats will do any better.

It can be argued that lobbyists and lawmakers who broke the rules are paying for their misdeeds without the enactment of any reforms.

Abramoff faces a prison term, as do former congressional aides who worked for him and one of his lobbying targets, former Rep. Bob Ney, R-Ohio.

Several other lawmakers in both parties are being investigated by the Justice Department, and former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, has been indicted in his home state.

The Democratic program includes more than curbs on lobbyists. It would require lawmakers to disclose when they are negotiating for private-sector jobs, require House-Senate conferences to be open to the public and subject government contracts to public disclosure and aggressive competition.

The exit polls showed almost eight in 10 Democratic voters, and almost as many independents, said corruption issues were important to their votes and they strongly supported Democratic candidates.

Adding to the climate of revulsion with Washington was a scandal involving former Rep. Mark Foley, R-Fla., who sent questionable computer messages to former male House pages. Just over half of voters disapproved of how Republican leaders in Congress handled the Foley matter. The House ethics committee continues to investigate.

The congressional watchdog groups are trying to pressure the new leadership to approve one change that is not now on the agenda: creation of a body of legal experts from outside Congress to investigate allegations of wrongdoing by lawmakers and their employees.

Melanie Sloan, director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, said "creating more and more rules for lobbyists is not the answer to congressional ethics problems. Members themselves need to follow ethics rules and suffer serious consequences for violating those rules."

Miller, the Washington lobbyist, agreed. He said that in addition to Abramoff and his former employees, "It's members of Congress and congressional staffers who are going to prison. Maybe there should be more ethics training for those folks and not pointing the finger at the lobbying community."


© 2006 The Associated Press

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