Friday, March 31, 2006

Lobby Reform Lite

The New York Times
Lobby Reform Lite

With the ghost of Jack Abramoff, the recently sentenced rogue lobbyist, wafting above the debate, the Senate has voted for a halfhearted package of reforms that would come nowhere near curing the easy money, quid pro quo culture that now bedevils the Capitol.

Facing voters' flagging confidence, the Senate chose to emphasize greater disclosure by lobbyists while rejecting such vital reforms as the creation of an independent office to investigate ethics abuses. The instinct to protect privileged clubbiness carried the day, most glaringly when the Senate spiked any idea of ending lawmakers' shameless use of the executive jets so eagerly offered by corporate officials bent on insider access.

Constituents who are grateful to see even the slightest sign of reform will be happy that the senators have voted to extend to two years the mandatory waiting time before a former lawmaker can strike it rich as a lobbyist. The current wait is one year. The bill also takes the first steps toward uncovering the stealthy world of grass-roots lobbying investments in lawmakers' home districts.

The Senate bill would make it harder — but by no means impossible — for members to quietly "earmark" pork projects in the budget at the behest of lobbyists. But even such an obvious reform as banning meals and gifts from lobbyists came equipped with a gaping loophole so the corporate employers of lobbyists could still pick up those checks.

The unfinished ethics agenda begins with the most critical issue of all: an end to the pervasive role of lobbyists as campaign finance brokers and money bundlers for incumbent politicians. It's reached the point where the people's representatives blatantly designate lobbyists to head their fund-raising teams. This moneyed back-scratching is the seedbed for scandal, but neither house shows any appetite to confront it.

Also ignored was a ban on lawmakers' junketeering at the expense of special-interest check writers. The Senate chose instead to require prior approval of private trips by its spineless ethics committee, a step that would hardly mitigate the cheesiness. Taxpayers, not corporate sponsors, should pay for global fact-finding.

For all its shortcomings, the Senate is a light-year ahead of the House. There, reform proposals have been parceled out to committees for indefinite marination as Republican leaders face rebellious members who want no part of real reform. The chances seem slim for two-house action that truly dents the clout of the booming lobbying industry.