Wednesday, January 18, 2006

2 Parties Rush to Offer Curbs for Lobbying

The New York Times
2 Parties Rush to Offer Curbs for Lobbying

WASHINGTON, Jan. 17 - House Republican leaders laid out a proposal on Tuesday to rewrite House rules governing lobbying as they moved to contain the political damage from an election-year scandal over undue influence and access afforded to lobbyists.

In the first of a series of competing packages of legislation, Speaker J. Dennis Hastert called for a ban on Congressional travel underwritten by outside groups, tougher restrictions on gifts and favors and the elimination of privileges for lawmakers turned lobbyists in response to three bribery and corruption convictions that have reached into the House. Inquiries related to those criminal acts are continuing.

Congressional Democrats plan to issue their own overhaul plan Wednesday, and Senate Republicans are preparing one as well in a game of one-upsmanship touched off by guilty pleas to corruption charges by the high-powered lobbyist Jack Abramoff and an associate and a House Republican's admission to taking bribes.

The House and Senate are responsible for setting the rules that apply to each chamber, but in the past have enacted these types of reforms through a combination of rules changes and legislation to give them the force of law.

Past furors like the House Post Office scandal and sensational revelations about lobbyist paid travel, suspect book deals and speaking fees have sparked previous rounds of reform. But they are often undone by lack of staff members to police them and have been riddled with loopholes that allow lawmakers and lobbyists alike to find ways around them. Some fear that could be the case this time if Congress is not vigilant.

Though the plans differ, all take aim at the opportunities available to lobbyists to provide lawmakers with benefits like luxury travel, expensive meals, scarce tickets to entertainment events, fund-raising help, contributions to pet causes and other little-scrutinized forms of financial and political support.

"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," Mr. Hastert said. "They can pay for it for themselves."

Democrats plan to push ahead with their own proposals, saying they are skeptical that the Republicans who control the House and Senate will be able to clean up a system they have presided over.

"It is like asking John Gotti to do what he can to clean up organized crime," said Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the Democratic leader.

Like the other plans, the overhaul by Congressional Democrats would double to two years the time before a former lawmaker or senior aide could lobby Congress. Congressional Democrats would institute new quarterly lobbying reports with extensive new requirements for disclosure. They would also prohibit lawmakers and aides from pressing private entities to make employment decisions on the basis of political affiliation, a provision aimed at the Republican K Street push to force the hiring of Republicans by lobbying firms and trade associations. Senate Republicans are drafting a plan that, according to a party memorandum, would end travel subsidized by outside groups, ban gifts, reduce the ability of senators to stall legislation and nominations anonymously through "holds" and prohibit spouses and relatives of senators from lobbying the Senate. The last has become a growing practice in recent years.

Advocates of tighter rules say the frenzied approach to overhauling the rules could produce real changes in the way lawmakers and lobbyists interact if Congress follows through.

"If you want to be serious about it, there has to be some enforcement mechanism," said Roberta Baskin, executive director of the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit group that tracks money in politics.

Some leading lobbyists, however, say Congress is in danger of going overboard and could cut off the ability of the public to advocate on Capitol Hill.

"We cannot lose sight of the fact that we have had one lawmaker and two lobbyists plead guilty," said Robert Livingston, a former House Appropriations Committee chairman who is now a Washington lobbyist. "The fact is, we have reformed campaign finance at least four times since 1974, and each time it has gotten progressively worse. I am worried we are going to do the same to lobbying."

Should Congress agree on a lobbying package this year, it would be the first extensive revision since a 1995 measure limiting gifts and requiring new lobbying disclosure.

Mr. Hastert and others acknowledged Tuesday, however, that it would not be easy to enact such legislation. He and others said that scores of House Republicans who participated in a 90-minute conference call Tuesday expressed misgivings about various elements of the House Republican approach, including the travel ban and the rights of former members.

In addition, House Republicans also intend to use the legislation to put new campaign spending and reporting restrictions on independent advocacy groups that have been seen as beneficial to Democrats, a move that could spark resistance.

"It's going to take some leadership and some pushing and pulling," Mr. Hastert said.

Representative John Shadegg of Arizona, a candidate for Republican majority leader, immediately objected to the travel ban, saying it could deprive members of crucial educational opportunities. The leadership position came open in part because of the links between Mr. Abramoff and Representative Tom DeLay of Texas.

Travel has become a chief focus since Mr. Abramoff was accused of using third-party groups to provide lavish trips for lawmakers, who said they were unaware that he had paid for the trips. Dozens of other lawmakers have had to file new disclosure reports to account for their journeys over the years while explaining the educational purposes of high-season trips to popular resorts.

Representative David Dreier, the California Republican who is the chairman of the Rules Committee and has been assembling the House plan, said he hoped to take a comprehensive proposal to the House floor by March.

But Mr. Dreier said the House would act as soon as it reconvenes Jan. 31 on a few elements of the plan, including provisions that would bar former lawmakers who are now registered lobbyists from being on the House floor or using a private gym where they have ready access to their old colleagues.

"We do know that members have raised concern about this issue," Mr. Dreier said.

Fred Wertheimer, president of the group Democracy 21 and a longtime advocate of tighter Congressional ethics rules, said he saw promise in the proposals, but he cautioned that the final judgment would await the details and the mechanisms to hold members accountable given a near collapse of the House ethics review.

"The real battle lies ahead," Mr. Wertheimer said, suggesting that Congress should consider a new professional office of public integrity to enforce the rules.

But Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona and the author of his own Senate plan, said Tuesday that he did not want to see a new Congressional entity created. Greater disclosure, Mr. McCain said, could ultimately bring public and political pressure to bear.

"If there are issues, my initial response is, it could be taken care of by the ethics committees and/or the Justice Department, in case of criminal activities," he said.