TOPICS > Politics

House Passes Lobbying Reforms

January 5, 2007 at 6:25 PM EDT

KWAME HOLMAN: New York Democrat Louise Slaughter and California Republican David Dreier began the second day of the new Congress the same way they ended the first: arguing over Democrats’ handling of a broad ethics reform measure.

REP. LOUISE SLAUGHTER (D), New York: Certainly, the…

REP. DAVID DREIER (R), California: Well, if I might reclaim my time, Mr. Speaker. If I might reclaim…

REP. LOUISE SLAUGHTER: … on ending the war, which is not — the war itself is not…

REP. DAVID DREIER: Mr. Speaker, if I might reclaim my time. Thank you for letting me reclaim my time.

KWAME HOLMAN: The two are well-known for their contentious debates. But with Democrats now in control, Slaughter has the upper hand, having replaced Dreier as chairman of the House Rules Committee.

And for a second day, Dreier criticized Slaughter for allowing the new majority to bring up the ethics bill with no input from Republicans.

REP. DAVID DREIER: All I’m asking — all I’m asking is that the promise that was made in the 109th Congress, by the then-members of minority, about what they believe minority rights should be, should be, in fact, implemented.

KWAME HOLMAN: Slaughter disputed Dreier’s account and said Democrats will not run the committee as Republicans had.

REP. LOUISE SLAUGHTER: We have no intention of keeping our foot on your necks the way you did us.

KWAME HOLMAN: With that, Democrats went ahead and pushed through elements of their reform package, some with overwhelming support and some with a more partisan split.

One pay-as-you-go proposal would allow new discretionary government spending only if it’s accompanied by a way to pay for it. California Democrat Adam Schiff said PAYGO rules would help end the Republican era of reckless deficit spending.

REP. ADAM SCHIFF (D), California: The first rule of PAYGO is, when you’re in a hole, as we are, when you’re in a budgetary hole, stop digging. If we want new spending, we need to find a way to pay for it.

KWAME HOLMAN: But some Republicans argued that PAYGO would only lead to higher taxes. California’s John Campbell.

REP. JOHN CAMPBELL (R), California: PAYGO does not equal fiscal responsibility. What PAYGO does equal is tax increases that will hurt the economy, and will not raise revenue, and will not help the deficit.

KWAME HOLMAN: In the end, nearly 50 Republicans joined Democrats in passing the PAYGO rule. And there was even more Republican support for a bill requiring lawmakers to disclose publicly pet spending projects, known as earmarks.

Several members cited as one reason for support the 2005 conviction of Randy “Duke” Cunningham, for channeling earmarks to defense contractors in exchange for bribes. Wisconsin Republican Paul Ryan.

REP. PAUL RYAN (R), Wisconsin: I think it’s high time that, when a member of Congress requests an earmark, that that member’s name be associated with that earmark, that that member’s justification be associated with the earmark, and that we, as members of this body, have the opportunity to vote on whether or not that that earmark should be funded or not.

KWAME HOLMAN: In some respects, the earmark reform package is a companion to a list of lobbying reforms the House approved as their first measure of business yesterday.

They ban members from accepting gifts and meals from lobbyists, require approval of members’ travel paid by outside groups, and prohibit members from using corporate jets. Texas Democrat Lloyd Doggett.

REP. LLOYD DOGGETT (D), Texas: Now, normally, a New Year’s resolution is something you make up and write up for yourself. But this ethics resolution that Democrats are now adopting was written by the American people at the ballot box in November.

This January resolution is possible only because of the November revolution by voters who were, quite frankly, revolted by what they saw going on here in Washington. Under Democratic leadership, spring cleaning is getting an early start here in January.

KWAME HOLMAN: Even David Dreier agreed with the new restrictions and, in fact, took credit for some of them.

REP. DAVID DREIER: I’m reminded of the fact that, one year ago this month, Speaker Hastert and I stood right upstairs in the press gallery and unveiled a package for lobbying and ethics reform, which did a number of things that I am happy to see are incorporated in this provision that is coming forward from the new majority.

KWAME HOLMAN: These lobbying reforms are not just the priority of the House: Senate Democrats will bring their package of reforms up for a vote next week.

Potential impact of the bill

JIM LEHRER: And to Margaret Warner.

MARGARET WARNER: So will the new House rules restricting its members' relationships with lobbyists address the so-called "culture of corruption" that the Democrats campaigned against?

For perspective on that, we're joined by Joan Claybrook, president of Public Citizen, a government watchdog group that monitors, among other things, the influence of lobbyists on government.

And two former House members who are now Washington lobbyists themselves, Democrat Martin Frost, who served for 26 years from Texas, and Republican Robert Walker, who spent 20 years as a representative from Pennsylvania.

And welcome to you all.

Joan Claybrook, your organization, Public Citizen, touted this yesterday, this package, calling it "strong and meaningful." What's so strong about it, when it comes to curbing the influence-peddling that's been exposed in the last few years?

JOAN CLAYBROOK, Public Citizen: Well, the ban on corporate jets is huge. Members love to fly on corporate jets. You can only ask my colleagues here if that's not true.

And also the ban on gifts means that there's just no exceptions. Before this was adopted, you could give $50 or $100 a year, $50 at one time. Not much, but nevertheless it was something you could wiggle around. So those are very important.

But this is not the end of the package. In February, they're going to bring up disclosure requirements so that lobbyist fundraising, which is the mother's milk of politics, has to be disclosed in terms of their own gifts, with what they bundle, which is gathering checks from all of these other people and giving a big package of $100,000 or $50,000 from one industry, and so on.

So there's going to be more. And also the question of an office of public integrity to enforce this has not yet been decided.

MARGARET WARNER: Bob Walker, what's your view on how fundamentally what has already been adopted will change the relationship between lobbyists and lawmakers?

FORMER REP. BOB WALKER (R), Pennsylvania: I don't think there will be much fundamental change at all. Certainly, some of the things like the corporate jets and so on will change some of the practices but won't markedly change the way things are done. And most of the rest of the things will simply result in a blizzard of paperwork.

Look, we are not going to solve these problems until we get to the real issue, and that is the corrosive impact of money in the system. What's really needed here is some real, tough reforms, in terms of how money comes into politics. And we need to have a system that assures that the fundraising is at least one degree removed from the policy-making.

MARGARET WARNER: And what you're saying is now lobbyists are inextricably linked with the fundraising for the campaigns of lawmakers?

BOB WALKER: Absolutely. What's happening now is -- and as a result of all these new regulations, we're going to see even more of the problem that the only place that lobbyists will be able to deal with members will be at fundraising events.

We've seen a trend toward that anyway. And it seems to me that that's a process that you don't want to have happen. You want real policy to be discussed between lawmakers and lobbyists, not a system that is based upon handing over a fundraising check.

MARGARET WARNER: Does it strike you the same way, Martin Frost, that, in fact, the gift and travel ban will somehow actually just turn the whole relationship into one of fundraising? Or do you think these are going to be effective measures?

FORMER REP. MARTIN FROST (D), Texas: Well, first of all, I think that the measures that were taken were good ones. I agree with Joan on that. The earmark provisions are particularly strong.

I served in Congress for 26 years. I was proud when I got an earmark for my district. When I got money for mass transit or I got money to build a veterans' cemetery, I wanted that in the newspaper.

Now, there are some members who are not so proud, perhaps, of the things they've gotten, but I think that's the right thing to do. I think opening up conference committees was the right thing to do.

We had a procedure in recent years where conferences didn't even meet. And when they did meet, it was in secret. Now that's going to change. I think the gift ban is a good one.

The interesting question, though, is the privately financed travel, because Congress has not closed that loophole. Now, there are a lot of members...

Funding of members' travel

MARGARET WARNER: Explain now how not, because the new rule says lobbyists cannot, at least not directly, pay for private travel for members and their spouses.

MARTIN FROST: What Abramoff did was to set up sham foundations that paid for this. You can't do that anymore.

But groups that lobby can still have affiliated foundations that their own members will be on the board of, and that will be contributors to and perhaps officers of, and the group will hire lobbyists. It will have a separate foundation that will pay for its travel by members, and the question is whether Congress ultimately decides you can't even do that.

This is very controversial. Members love to go on these trips. And there is some value, quite frankly, in members traveling abroad and learning about what's happening in the rest of the world.

The question is whether there's going to be any continued privately financed foreign travel. That has not been closed down. I think the Congress will revisit that issue and may have second thoughts about it.

There are some very powerful lobbying organizations that maintain foundations. Now, their lobbyists won't be able to go on those trips anymore, but their members have set up foundations. And the question is -- and Joan may have some thoughts on this -- as whether we want to continue that.

JOAN CLAYBROOK: Well, I was just going to say that it does require prior approval by the Ethics Committee if you use these affiliated entities to pay for the travel, and you have to disclose the travel immediately. And if we see the abuses continue, then we are definitely going to go back and ask for some changes.

MARGARET WARNER: But explain how it works. In other words, there's nothing to prevent -- let's say, lobbyists or corporations fund a non-profit -- maybe they can't travel on the corporate jet together, but they can show up at the same event, right, in London or wherever?

JOAN CLAYBROOK: Well, they could do that even if they didn't pay for the travel.

MARTIN FROST: That's correct.

MARGARET WARNER: Right, but there may not be an event if they didn't pay for it.

JOAN CLAYBROOK: That's correct. And so -- but I believe that the Congress should pay for every bit of travel that any member does, that is that this is a member going on a business trip, the Congress should pay for it. It should be reported and a report written about what they learned.

And I don't think there ought to be any privately funded travel. If the travel is important, the Congress ought to pay for it. They could have a fund -- you know, every member could have a fund, just like for traveling to their home district, which is foreign travel or domestic travel that's important to the Congress.

Financing of campaigns

MARGARET WARNER: But let me get Bob Walker in here for a second, because I don't want him to be left out here. You talked about how the fundraising should be at least one step removed from the policy-making. How pervasive, how tight is this loop between lawmakers, leadership, committees and the lobbyists through money?

BOB WALKER: Well, I think it's very pervasive. I think that moving up in leadership in the Congress has become tied to fundraising. When the Republicans were in control, I've had people tell me that one of the things that was going to be evaluated, in terms of their ability to become a committee chairman or to move up in leadership, would be how much money they were capable of raising.

I just think that that is one of the underpinnings of the problems that we've had, because it causes the members to move very directly to the lobbying community to try to raise the big money that is necessary, and that that is having an adverse impact on the entire process.

In my view, if you're going to clean up lobbying, one of the first things that you have to do is assure that lobbyists are dealing in policy and not in money.

JOAN CLAYBROOK: I agree with that, by the way.

BOB WALKER: And that's the way in which we're going to get this problem solved.

JOAN CLAYBROOK: I think you ought to have...

MARTIN FROST: We have a disadvantage in the Supreme Court, in that the Supreme Court has, in a series of rulings, as you know, has ruled that speech equals money and that you cannot put limits on the amount of money that can be raised for a congressional campaign.

JOAN CLAYBROOK: And that's why you should have public funding of elections. There's no question about it. Bob Walker is exactly right. You have to have public funding of elections so there is no nexus between the members...

BOB WALKER: But the public is not going to support that. Historically, they have not supported that.

JOAN CLAYBROOK: You know what? You know what? I don't agree with that. It costs $1 billion a year or $2 billion an election to do that. That's, what, one tax break for a corporation.

MARGARET WARNER: Why don't we get Bob Walker back in? Come in, Bob Walker.

BOB WALKER: Well, the problem, of course, is when you go to public funding, what you get is regulation then of political speech, which I think the Supreme Court would also end up having a problem with.

The best way to do this is to go back to the old system that we used to have, and that is have the parties fund the campaigns. Don't have members of Congress out collecting money for themselves for their own campaigns. Fund it through the parties and have the money given to the parties.

That way, you would have institutions that would be collecting the money that you could hold accountable.

JOAN CLAYBROOK: Oh, I don't agree with that, either. The money...

BOB WALKER: Put the fundraising one step removed from the overall politics...

JOAN CLAYBROOK: ... but then the parties control too much, and so you're going to have all of these other...

MARGARET WARNER: Can we get back to, actually, what's been passed? Because I know we could all just spin out into outer space here. How would we know, Martin Frost, if this is working, if even the limited measures taken today are working?

MARTIN FROST: Well, first of all, they're not limited measures. These were pretty good measure, by and large. And I think the question is the amount of public disclosure, the amount of awareness, whether in fact these rules are tight and that things really do have to be disclosed, and whether they are reported by the press on a regular basis.

One of the key things is that we've had reports say every three months or every six months. The emphasis now is reporting on a monthly basis, making sure that organizations, like Joan's group, publicize all of this, and that the press then covers it, and so that we know exactly what's going on.

The difficulty you have is that so much of this has gone underground, so much of this has gone unreported. Now we're going to shed some light on this, and we will know once we see how it plays out.

An office of public integrity?

JOAN CLAYBROOK: But you what need is an office of public integrity.

MARGARET WARNER: And by that you mean an independent office that actually monitors the members...

JOAN CLAYBROOK: And lobbyists. Today, it's the secretary of the Senate and the clerk of the House, and they don't have the staff to do that. So there's no enforcement against lobbyists, either.

So I believe for both. And this would be independent, but appointed bipartisanly by the heads of the Congress, both House and Senate, and Democrat and Republican.

MARTIN FROST: This is something that's going to be studied between now and March. Congress is reluctant to cede authority to outside people, feeling that Congress itself should be the arbiter of...

JOAN CLAYBROOK: But under this proposal, they would be, because the office of public integrity would report to the Ethics Committee, and the Ethics Committee would make the...


MARTIN FROST: But they're not going to do anything. They're going to study that until March, though...

MARGARET WARNER: How do you think we'll know whether this is working?

BOB WALKER: Well, I think that some of the discussion here that we've had about the reports, the more open disclosure, and so on, are all good things. And there's nothing wrong with anything that was passed.

My point is that we simply have not gotten to the basic issues. The one thing that I think the Senate is doing, which is a good thing, is calling for more credentialing of lobbyists so that you can, in fact, hold lobbyists accountable and, by lifting the credential, could, in fact, take away their livelihood, which would be a real penalty.

MARGARET WARNER: But would you vote for an independent...

BOB WALKER: That's the kind of thing that would really have some impact.

MARGARET WARNER: But would you vote for an independent office having that power?

BOB WALKER: Well, I think an independent office that oversees the lobbying aspect would be a good thing. I think there's a real hard question involved of whether or not you can actually have an independent office that can tell Congress what to do under the Constitution.

JOAN CLAYBROOK: It doesn't tell them what to do. What is does is reports to the Ethics Committee. The Ethics Committee then makes the decision, because, under the Constitution, the House has to judge itself.

MARGARET WARNER: I think we're out of time. Thank you, Martin Frost, Joan Claybrook, and Bob Walker, thank you all.