Monday, April 24, 2006

House softens lobbying measure

House softens lobbying measure
By Jim Drinkard, USA TODAY

WASHINGTON — House Republican leaders have quietly scaled back their plan to limit the political influence of lobbyists, dropping proposed requirements that lobbyists disclose which lawmakers and aides they have contacted and how they have raised money for politicians.

The changes were made public in an amended bill posted on the House Rules Committee website Friday while Congress was wrapping up a two-week recess. Even before the latest move, political ethics experts had called the House plan weaker than a lobbying bill the Senate passed last month.

The legislation is to be considered this week as Congress returns to address a political influence scandal that has gripped Washington. The House bill would leave unchanged current rules that allow members of Congress and their staffs to accept gifts from lobbyists.

In addition, the measure would:

•Freeze junkets paid for by private interests, but only until after the November elections.

•Place no new restrictions on lawmakers and aides who leave Capitol Hill to become lobbyists.

•Leave enforcement of the rules in the hands of a House ethics committee that is paralyzed by partisan tensions.

Ex-lobbyist Jack Abramoff landed in legal trouble for wooing members of Congress with lavish trips, expensive meals and sports and entertainment tickets, and by luring top aides to the lobbying world to try to influence their former bosses.

The House bill, like the Senate version approved last month, relies heavily on disclosure to police ties between lobbyists and policymakers. It would require lobbyists to file reports quarterly, rather than semiannually as they do now.

Kevin Madden, spokesman for House Majority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, said the bill would make the ties between lobbyists and lawmakers more transparent and "rebuild the trust between Congress and the American public."

The House bill is "sleight of hand from a Congress that is more concerned with facing the voters than with facing the problem," said Gary Kalman of the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, a government watchdog organization. Added Chellie Pingree, president of Common Cause: "They are maintaining the status quo and calling it reform."

Julian Zelizer, a congressional historian at Boston University, said major rule changes usually come only when a scandal hits peak intensity. Congress, he said, is "still clearly hesitating to do anything."

The revised plan finished Friday dropped requirements that lobbyists specify which lawmakers and aides they have contacted; disclose their sponsorship of lavish parties for lawmakers at political conventions; and report their fundraising for candidates for federal office.

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