Congress Mulls Lobbying Reform
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KWAME HOLMAN: That image of Jack Abramoff, wearing the black fedora, emerging from the courthouse last month after pleading guilty to, among other charges, conspiracy to bribe public officials, was the first time most people ever had seen the one-time super-lobbyist. And it left a lasting impression. Much like Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North did for the Iran- Contra affair and the physically-imposing savings and loan owner Charles Keating did for the “Keating Five” Jack Abramoff has put a name and face on the world of Washington influence peddling.
REP. DEBORAH PRYCE: It has exposed a series of abuses that Americans just can’t stomach.
KWAME HOLMAN: House Republican Deborah Pryce of Ohio.
REP. DEBORAH PRYCE: And it’s gone too far and we need to put the brakes on.
KWAME HOLMAN: Washington’s K Street corridor is famous for its high-priced lobbying firms, but in fact lobbyists are spread all across town. There now are more than 27,000 people registered to lobby the federal government. They’ve become such an integral part of politics and policy- making in Washington that lobbying often is called the “fourth branch of government.” And Congresswoman Pryce says that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
REP. DEBORAH PRYCE: Well, it’s important that we make that distinction. There are lobbyists that represent almost every person in this country, whether it’s the lobbyist for the AARP, or the lobbyists for the Children’s Hospital Association, or the lobbyist for the soy bean growers, you know, they have organizations and they come in and they don’t always serve an ill purpose.
KWAME HOLMAN: But even if Jack Abramoff is the exception, he’s had a profound effect on some of Washington’s most powerful people. For instance: Ohio Congressman Bob Ney, who is referred to in Abramoff’s indictment, resigned as chairman of the House Administration Committee and could face his own legal problems. Then there’s Tom DeLay, whose close relationship with Jack Abramoff might have contributed to his decision not to try to reclaim his post as House Majority leader, when and if his legal troubles go away.
Meanwhile, Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid, who accepted $68,000 in campaign contributions from Abramoff’s Native American tribe clients, continues to deny news reports he had closer connections to Abramoff than he’s admitted. And there are dozens of others in the Congress, and in the White House as well who’ve had to explain their past associations with Jack Abramoff. At the very least, it’s an image problem that congressional leaders initially rushed to repair.
REP. DENNIS HASTERT: We have a duty to do everything we can to keep the trust and confidence of our constituents.
KWAME HOLMAN: Speaker Dennis Hastert and Rules Committee Chairman David Dreier stepped out first, offering a list of lobbying reform proposals on behalf of Republicans in the House.
REP. DAVID DREIER: And I believe that we are in a position today where we can come forward with some bold things.
KWAME HOLMAN: Meanwhile John McCain, one of five senators reprimanded 15 years ago for his dealings on behalf of Charles Keating, and Rick Santorum, once considered K Street’s point person among Senate Republicans, announced they would work together in pursuit of lobbying reform.
SEN. JOHN McCAIN: We’ve reached a tipping point now, where the American people are saying, “enough.”
KWAME HOLMAN: And Democrats from the Senate and House appeared together at a partisan rally for lobbying reform.
REP. NANCY PELOSI: Democratic proposals will lead this country in a new direction, put an end to business as usual, and make certain that the nation’s leaders serve the people’s interest, not the special interest.
KWAME HOLMAN: It’s been more than a month since that first flurry of proposals encircled the capitol. Since then, Jack Abramoff has disappeared from public view, other issues have gotten attention, and some members of Congress no longer believe lobbying reform needs to be rushed.
SEN. TRENT LOTT: There was the usual over reaction that we see happen quite often in Washington, the media is a part of that frenzy, and then others have to sort of step in and say, okay now, wait a minute now. Let’s think this through.
KWAME HOLMAN: Mississippi Republican Trent Lott has spent more than three decades dealing with lobbyists on both sides of the capitol, sixteen years in the House, and the last seventeen in the Senate, including six years as the Republican leader.
KWAME HOLMAN: Are things more quote-unquote corrupt in respect to lobbying practices now versus years ago?
SEN. TRENT LOTT: It’s a lot cleaner now than it was years ago. When I first came to Washington as a staff member, when you wanted to get campaign contributions to a member of the Senate, you took it to him in a cigar box or a brown paper bag. And that was legal. And it was cash. And it wasn’t reported anywhere. So the allegations that things have gotten worse are just outrageous.
KWAME HOLMAN: Still, on the first day of the new congressional session three weeks ago, the House of Representatives revoked floor and gymnasium access for former members now registered as lobbyists.
REP. DAVID DREIER: This resolution is designed to ensure, Mr. Speaker, that former members of Congress who are registered lobbyists do not have any kind of advantage over the average American when it comes to access to members of the United States House of Representatives.
KWAME HOLMAN: The vote in favor was overwhelming, even though members from both parties scoffed at the impact.
REP. MICHAEL OXLEY: The rule frankly has always been that there is no lobbying on the floor of the House. And, frankly, in my 24 plus years here, I have never had that experience, even since I have been committee chairman. So to some extent we are somewhat tilting at windmills.
REP. LOUISE SLAUGHTER: Clearly, former members of this body who lobby should not have special access to lawmakers on the floor or the gym. But let me be clear, that this rules change is so minor in relation to the magnitude of the problem that it does not amount to a drop in the ocean.
KWAME HOLMAN: Among other proposals Congress is considering: Increasing from one year to two the amount of time a former member must wait before he or she may lobby former colleagues; further limiting or eliminating gifts members may accept from lobbyists; and restricting or prohibiting members from accepting free meals and privately-funded travel. It was extravagant travel packages that first raised suspicions about Jack Abramoff. He offered all-expense paid golfing trips to Scotland to several members of Congress, including Representatives Ney and DeLay.
During a recent rules committee hearing on lobbying reform, chaired by Senator Lott, Wisconsin Democrat Russ Feingold described a travel invitation once offered by cellular phone company GTE.
SEN. RUSS FEINGOLD: A “congressional field trip,” sponsored by GTE to Tampa and Clearwater Beach. And the invitation reads, “To take advantage of the terrific location besides Tampa Bay and the Gulf of Mexico we’ll demonstrate that you can place a cellular call over water, either while dining aboard a boat or fishing for that night’s dinner.” (Laughter)
Mr. Chairman, enough. If members of Congress can’t justify spending taxpayer money to do a fact finding trip they shouldn’t go, and neither should their staff.
KWAME HOLMAN: There appears to be wide agreement among Democrats and Republicans that the rules governing congressional travel have been abused. But Sen. Lott argues many congressional trips obviously are justified.
SEN. TRENT LOTT: What’s wrong with a non- partisan group taking you to a conference to meet with European parliamentarians to talk about, you know, immigration policy? Do you want to stop that? Or what about if a senator’s invited to fly out to Denver to speak to the National Homebuilders Association, is that wrong or something sinister about that?
REP. MARTY MEEHAN: The question comes in, how do you set up a system where you can tell the difference?
KWAME HOLMAN: Marty Meehan of Massachusetts is pushing a package of lobbying reforms on behalf of House Democrats.
REP. MARTY MEEHAN: And oftentimes what happens with the American people, they don’t want to split hairs, they say look, why don’t you just ban privately paid for travel, and if in fact the trip is in the interest of the country, or in the interest of the individual’s home state or constituency, then the taxpayers should pay for that trip.
SEN. TRENT LOTT: Well, why should the taxpayers pay for that? You know I still worry about, you know, some people say, well, the answer is for the government to do it all, you know — have public financing in the campaigns, let the taxpayers pay for all flying, let the taxpayers pay for everything. Where does this end?
KWAME HOLMAN: House Republican Paul Ryan of Wisconsin offers these solutions.
REP. PAUL RYAN: Ban the junkets, ban the lobbyist-paid and the corporate-paid travel, but the alternative to banning nonprofit trips that are purely educational is either members don’t travel and don’t learn about the world and other communities, or the taxpayers pick up the tab. Either of those are bad alternatives.
We ought to have some credible third party that pre-approves these kinds of trips to make sure that these are educational – that these are nonprofit foundations.
KWAME HOLMAN: At the Senate Rules Committee hearing, Republican Norm Coleman of Minnesota said his solution, is simple transparency.
SEN. NORM COLEMAN: In my case, I put all my travel — you go on to my web site — you can see every trip that I’ve taken, who paid for it and a description of what the organization is all about. Let people know what you’re doing and who’s paying for it.
KWAME HOLMAN: But Illinois Democrat Barack Obama argued disclosure doesn’t always work.
SEN. BARACK OBAMA: When Tom DeLay went to Scotland to play golf, that was under the aegis of a 501(c)(3) that sounded like it was educational and it didn’t look like there were too many serious seminars taking place on that trip. So I think it’s important for us to be able to distinguish those two things.
KWAME HOLMAN: Finally, many members of Congress say they’re determined to reform the practice of earmarking, the process of inserting individual spending items into appropriations bills, without the benefit of a vote, without debate, often without notice to other members, sometimes at the request of a lobbyist.
SEN. TRENT LOTT: I don’t like these deals where leaders or subcommittee chairmen go into late night meetings somewhere in the caverns of the capitol and add things that could be worth millions, or even billions, at night, not in either body, not, you know, not, no hearings, no nothing.
KWAME HOLMAN: Senators Lott, McCain, Obama and Democrat Dianne Feinstein of California all have proposed changes to the practice of earmarking, and when Congress returns next week, at least two committees will begin the potentially-difficult process of writing lobbying reform legislation.
However, the House of Representatives now is expected to move much slower in response to the Abramoff scandal.
REP. DEBORAH PRYCE: This all happened while we were home on our district work period over the month of January. Members weren’t here all together in Washington, D.C. But John Boehner was running for leadership and he was on the phone with every member and he was hearing about it one member at a time in his phone calls in his bid for the leadership race and so he probably had a little different perspective than the speaker might have had.
KWAME HOLMAN: Now John Boehner, the new majority leader with his own history of close ties to K Street lobbyists, wants to take a go-slow approach.
REP. JOHN BOEHNER: The speaker has a package that was developed along with Mr. Dreier, certainly a very good start. I think that we need to continue to talk about this. We need to figure out how to bring the transparency to this relationship, and I’m confident that we will.
KWAME HOLMAN: While it appears lobbying reform in Congress will fall back to the pack with other legislative priorities, it could move again to the front of the line should new revelations about Jack Abramoff and his dealings with members of Congress come to light.