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Congress Debates Changing Lobbying Rules

January 18, 2006 at 12:00 AM EDT
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KWAME HOLMAN: Former lobbyist Jack Abramoff’s admission that he bribed at least one member of Congress with campaign contributions, expense-paid trips, free meals and sports tickets has triggered the first serious move towards lobbying reform in more than ten years.

SEN. BARACK OBAMA: The culture of corruption is going to require bipartisan work in order to clean up.

SEN. JOHN McCAIN: We have to have, obviously, increased penalties and enforcement.

KWAME HOLMAN: But as is tradition in Washington, each party is seeking political advantage in the race to reform. House Republican leaders moved first on Tuesday.

Speaker Dennis Hastert:

REP. DENNIS HASTERT: One of the things that we have to do is be able to make sure that our members are above question, and I think members can probably function very well in this town without having to go out to lunch with a lobbyist or to dinner with a lobbyist.

KWAME HOLMAN: Today, in announcing their own plan, a large showing of House and Senate Democrats blamed the majority party for the scandal, noting that Abramoff was aligned closely with top Republicans, such as Tom Delay, who recently gave up his leadership post; and Ohio’s Bob Ney, who was referred to in the indictment against Abramoff.

New York Congresswoman Louise Slaughter:

REP. LOUISE SLAUGHTER: What we’re up against isn’t just the shameful work of individual like these. It’s a much broader problem. It’s a problem that is rooted in the Republican establishment that has held power in this nation’s capital for far too long.

They have ensured that the word “corruption” is synonymous with Congress in the minds of the American people, and the people pay a heavy price.

KWAME HOLMAN: But a closer look at the competing proposals shows the two parties share the same basic reform ideas. Both would ban privately funded travel, further limit gifts lawmakers may receive from lobbyists, double to two years the time a former lawmaker must wait before lobbying on Capitol Hill, and increased disclosure requirements for lobbyists.

Republican Senators John McCain and Rick Santorum go one step further, limiting pet projects lawmakers may add to spending bills, often at a lobbyist’s request.

SEN. JOHN McCAIN: The behavior has been driven by the ability to contact, perhaps even in the middle of the night, a member of the Appropriations Committee who then writes in a line item, which no one sees or knows about, sometimes days or even weeks after the bill is passed. That’s a process that lends itself to corruption.

KWAME HOLMAN: McCain pledged to work with Democrats to come up with a bipartisan lobbying reform bill in the Senate. House Republicans hope to pass their own measure by March.

JIM LEHRER: And to Margaret Warner.

MARGARET WARNER: And for a further explanation of these competing proposals to reform lobbying rules we turn to Jeffrey Birnbaum of the Washington Post. He reports on the lobbying industry in Washington and writes a column on the subject for the Post called “K Street Confidential.”

Jeff, welcome.

JEFFREY BIRNBAUM: Thank you.

MARGARET WARNER: First of all, let’s take — Kwame just laid what these bills at least share. Which of the excesses that were exposed by the Abramoff scandal do they address? Give us a little better feel for that.

JEFFREY BIRNBAUM: Well, there are two main ones. The first is privately paid travel by interest groups for lawmakers. Jack Abramoff took members of Congress and staffers on trips to Scotland and other places for golf outings. He paid for that through other organizations, and some of it he may have paid for himself.

MARGARET WARNER: Some of these dummy charities he set up.

JEFFREY BIRNBAUM: Or public policy foundations. So banning that sort of travel is a direct relationship to Abramoff. Abramoff also owned his own restaurant in downtown Washington called Signatures. It was called Signatures because it was near the National Archives. And apparently there were dozens of members of Congress and staffers who ate there free of charge or for not very much, and banning those gifts to members is another major relationship to him.

MARGARET WARNER: And then do you see significant differences between — and neither of these is in the form of legislation yet we should say — but between the Republican proposals laid out by Speaker Hastert yesterday, and what the Democrats did today?

JEFFREY BIRNBAUM: Well, they are very similar both legislations. They are, in some cases, though, in the form of principles rather than the details, or the devil will be in those details.

And the Democrats are trying to do a few extra things beyond what the Republicans are doing. But I think we have to wait to see exactly what those are.

MARGARET WARNER: Now you wrote today about the major loophole that people you talked to see and that has to do with fundraising.

JEFFREY BIRNBAUM: Right.

MARGARET WARNER: Explain, first of all, how integral are Washington lobbyists to lawmakers’ campaign fundraising? How does that work?

JEFFREY BIRNBAUM: Well, professional lobbyists are the major conduit, or a major conduit for members of Congress, and what they do a lot of the time — which is raise funds for their re-elections.

And so, these purported bans on meals and private-paid travel aren’t really foolproof because neither the House nor the Senate Republican plans — which are the major plans because they are in the majority — would address campaign finance laws, which allow meals for members of Congress and travel for members of Congress, as long as they are for fundraising events.

So there could be — though the speaker said that he wants to ban meals by lobbyists for lawmakers, he doesn’t mean it literally because lobbyists who raise an awful lot of money for members of Congress can hold dinners in Washington or anywhere else in this country and pay for the travel to those dinners, as long as they’re fund raisers.

MARGARET WARNER: I think you quoted one lobbyist, or some law firm in town who lobbies, saying we could hold a ski trip in Chicago — I mean, not in Chicago, in Colorado, as long as we call it a fund-raiser.

JEFFREY BIRNBAUM: That’s right. So that is one place that — a big loophole that John McCain says that he will try to address. It’s hard for me to see how you do that, though, without really getting into the guts and restricting campaign finance laws.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, another thing that the Democrats talked about today was the so-called “K Street Project.” Explain what they’re talking about.

JEFFREY BIRNBAUM: When the Republicans took over the House of Representatives after the election of 1994 for the first time in 40 years, there were a group of Republican leaders who worked to coerce lobbyists, and more importantly, trade associations in downtown Washington, to hire Republicans only as their top officials.

That was called the “K Street Project,” K Street being the lobbyist boulevard in downtown Washington. And this was a way, really, dealing with the money. If lobbyists — Republican lobbyists controlled major trade associations, they also would be more willing to send Republicans on Capitol Hill money for their reelections, and help perpetuate the majority for the Republicans.

And Tom Delay was actually admonished by the House for his involvement in one particular incident dealing with an electronics association way back when.

The K Street Project persists to this day, but it’s not as effective, and not as aggressive and much more public. There’s actually an Internet web site called kstreetproject.com that you can see.

MARGARET WARNER: Then another phrase we hear a lot about — John McCain was just talking about it — “earmarks.”

JEFFREY BIRNBAUM: Right.

MARGARET WARNER: Explain how earmarks work and why people like Newt Gingrich or columnist David Brooks say they are really essential to sort of how this whole lobbying circle works.

JEFFREY BIRNBAUM: Right. Earmarks have nothing to do with ears, it’s fair to say.

MARGARET WARNER: That’s good to know.

JEFFREY BIRNBAUM: Earmarks are very narrowly targeted appropriations that individual members of Congress get mostly for their own districts and often at the behest of lobbyists, and what is unusual about this is the number of them.

About 12 years ago, there were only a few thousand of them, and last year there were about 15,000. So that a growing part of the appropriations process where the federal government, through Congress, expends money for the government, they’re going to very narrowly targeted projects, and those that have lobbyists have an advantage over those that do not.

MARGARET WARNER: And it appears that neither one of these proposals actually would end those.

JEFFREY BIRNBAUM: No, it doesn’t appear that way, but here’s another place where the details matter. There’s a lot of rhetoric against earmarking or putting these earmarks in late in the process or in a way that the public doesn’t see, but exactly how they will shed more light and more hearings on that I think remains to be worked out.

MARGARET WARNER: Another provision that’s in both is to extend from one year to two the ban of the time which, if you’re a former lawmaker or aide, and you become a lobbyist, that you can actually go and personally lobby.

Now, how many former lawmakers and aides do that in the first place? And how much would it crimp any lobbyist’s style to have that extended to two years?

JEFFREY BIRNBAUM: Well, first off, this is a very big issue. There have been estimates of in excess of 250 former members of Congress who are now registered lobbyists, and some 2,000 former staffers who are lobbyists.

And every year, it seems, more and more members and staffers move downtown to K Street to lobby. But — and right now there’s a one-year ban, as you say, before they can directly lobby their former colleagues.

Two years, I’m not sure how much more that will do because what a lot of these former members do, in particular, is give strategy for others to lobby. They don’t have to do it themselves. So it may or may not have a whole lot of effect.

MARGARET WARNER: Jeffrey Birnbaum, the Washington Post, thank you.

JEFFREY BIRNBAUM: Thank you.