Can Congress Stop Another Abramoff?

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On Wednesday, Sen. Barack Obama joined Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid and House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi to outline their agenda for ethics reform

If the last two days are any indication, ethics reform is now the hottest issue in Washington. A day after Republicans recruited Senator John McCain to announce their plan to clean up government, close to one hundred congressional Democrats stood together in the Library of Congress as Senator Barack Obama talked about the importance of the reforms his party was introducing. And both parties put out plans that included tighter restrictions on lobbyists and their interactions with Congress.

The Democrats, hoping the scandal involving indicted GOP lobbyist Jack Abramoff could help their chances of winning back the House and the Senate in November, offered the more comprehensive proposal. The Democratic ideas, all named after various characters in the scandal, target specific activities they want to eliminate. For example, the so-called "Tony Rudy Reform," referring to a former Tom DeLay aide who started lobbying Congress quickly after he left DeLay's office, would ban former aides or members from lobbying Congress until a two-year waiting period had passed, doubling the current one-year requirement. Democrats also want to ban gifts from lobbyists, require government officials to disclose if they are in negotiations for jobs for when they leave Congress, post legislation on the Internet 24 hours before votes and end lobbyist-funded travel. The GOP also wants to extend the lobbying ban, stop lobbyists from paying for travel and eliminate pensions for members of Congress who are convicted of felonies.

Given the attention from the Abramoff scandal, many of these changes are almost certain to pass in Congress soon after members return to Washington after a month-long recess. "We clearly have seen very, very great problems," said David Drier, the Republican from California who is leading the GOP initiative. But will the changes work? The reforms could stop another lobbyist working as Abramoff did, taking members on golfing trips and hiring their aides for huge salaries and then having those aides lobby the very members they were working for only a few months earlier. But some members of Congress and government watchdog groups argue that the real problem isn't lobbyists, but a broken legislative process that allows members of Congress to insert legislation benefiting companies or private entities into key bills. Both parties have suggested they would pursue so-called "earmark" reform, but neither has offered a detailed plan so far.

For Democrats, the other issue is how much political damage the scandals will cause for the GOP. The National Republican Senatorial Committee has argued that because Abramoff's clients donated to both Democrats and Republicans, it's a bipartisan scandal, a claim Democrats reject, since Abramoff gave thousands of dollars of his own personal money almost exclusively to Republicans. "While the Democrats certainly are not without sin when it comes to money in politics," Obama said, "Jack Abramoff and Michael Scanlon and the K Street project—these are Republican sins."

A recent Fox News poll found the Democrats winning that argument, as 33% of respondents said Abramoff was "more closely tied" with the GOP, compared to 5% who said Democrats. (Forty percent said neither and 22% were unsure) But in an ABC News/Washington Post poll, 73% of respondents said there "isn't much difference" when it comes to ethics and honesty among the parties. For Democrats to use this issue in November, they'll have to increase the number of people who think Republicans are the problem in Washington.