Lobbying Reform Stumbles

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A month ago, Jack Abramoff had just been indicted, and the talk all over Capitol Hill was about how Congress should change its rules, stopping lobbyists from getting too close to lawmakers, and vice-versa. But even then, there were signs that lobbying and ethics reforms might be yet another Washington fad that would soon pass. Republican Roy Blunt, then running for the post of House Majority Leader, defended earmarks—money doled out for specific projects in congressional districts. And House Speaker Dennis Hastert, unable to blame the powerless Democrats for the growth in earmarks, found the next best scapegoat, saying the projects grew because "the Senate plays appropriation games."

And now, lo and behold, the reform talk has died down. While House Republicans did push through a ban on former members lobbying in the House gym last week, GOP members also suggested Hastert had overreacted to the Abramoff scandal. "Some of the proposals out there were just not necessary," said one House leadership aide. The new management in the House agrees. Two days before his surprising election as House Majority Leader, Ohio Republican John Boehner had suggested one of Hastert's ideas, banning all privately funded travel, was "childish". Since then Boehner has further distanced himself from the reform ideas, suggesting that current laws have worked in catching violations of ethics rules and an independent office of public integrity to check for abuses is unnecessary. "Sunlight is the best disinfectant," Boehner said on Meet the Press last weekend.

Boehner isn't alone in this view. A National Journal poll of 35 Republicans in the House and Senate found only 37% thought Congress should restrict lobbyists' fundraising for members, while 63% disagree. And when the 231 House members get together for a retreat that lasts from Thursday to Saturday in Cambridge, Maryland, House leaders aren't expected to push the issue strongly.

But House members aren't the only problem. Perhaps the two most popular members of the Senate and their respective party's' leaders on ethics and lobbying reform, Barack Obama and John McCain, were engaged earlier this week in a highly personal tiff on the issue. Obama, being pushed by Senate Democratic leaders to use the lobbying reform issue to help attack the GOP as elections loom in November, last week sent a letter to McCain, saying Democrats would pursue their own ethics bill rather than joining a bill created by McCain's bipartisan task force. In a letter this week, the Arizona Senator blasted Obama. "Iím embarrassed to admit that after all these years in politics," McCain wrote, "I failed to interpret your previous assurances as typical rhetorical gloss routinely used in politics to make self-interested partisan posturing appear more noble." At a Senate hearing yesterday, Obama and McCain put aside their differences to push for lobbying reform proposals. McCain's bill would allow the Senate to vote to eliminate earmarks out of bills.

Despite these distractions, the House and Senate seem likely to eventually pass some limited changes: greater transparency of which members of Congress have put an earmark into a bill, more disclosure of gifts and contacts of lobbyists with lawmakers, and stricter rules on former congressional staffers or members taking lobbying jobs. But the more dramatic reforms being discussed immediately post-Abramoff, like stopping lawmakers from using corporate jets and "leadership PACs"—which aspiring congressional leaders use to dole out money to and curry favor with other members, and often have lobbyists serving as treasurers—now have a much smaller chance of passing.