Lobbying reform needed

Published 4:23 pm Monday, January 23, 2006

By Staff
Obviously, your congressman golfing in Scotland or taking any number of other junkets to Mexico or Hawaii does nothing to help a home district. These work-free zones were proposed and arranged by lobbyists who tag along for the quality schmoozing time such access assures.
Why haven't we banned lobbyist-paid travel? Supposedly, existing rules prohibit it, but with a big “fact-finding” loophole.
Another problem is earmarks. What was once rare has become such a common practice that there are likely lobbyists who specialize in leaving no detectable fingerprints on late-night line items.
Earmarking is the practice of squeezing specific amounts of money into legislation for pet pork projects.
The most recent inductee into the Earmark Hall of Fame came last fall with the disclosure that Alaska representatives inserted into a bill almost $223 million to build the famous bridge to nowhere so a virtually uninhabited part of that state would be easier to reach. That maneuver was so outrageous that public outcry got it lopped from the budget.
Earmarks were at the root of the bribery scandal involving Rep. Duke Cunningham, R-Calif., who resigned in November after pleading guilty to corruption charges.
Having the power to direct money to particular interests is not one representatives will eagerly surrender, however.
Debate among Republicans who control Capitol Hill likely centers more on how they can maintain the status quo, yet project that something has changed in the name of reform. The Democratic proposal on earmarks wouldn't end them, either.
Another needed reform would be to bar fundraising while Congress is in session. Having to wait until a recess might make it harder for lobbyists to make a quick turnaround from a donation at last night's fundraiser to an amendment on the floor tomorrow.
A third reform which makes sense would be to slow the spinning revolving door. Former members of Congress and their aides must wait a year before lobbying former colleagues. That's not long enough. Double it to two years.
One other thought about the unraveling of lobbyist Jack Abramoff and the GOP's hope to repair its reputation with a successor to Tom DeLay of Texas as House majority leader (who went home face the music in a corporate jet loaned by cigarette-maker R.J. Reynolds) in time to salvage 2006 mid-term elections.
Leading contenders are: Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, elected in 1990 and a close ally of Newt Gingrich in bringing Republicans to power in 1994; House Majority Whip Roy Blunt, R-Mo.; and John Shadegg, R-Ariz. Shadegg, who has the strongest reform credentials, came into Congress with that Class of 1994 pledging to clean up Washington after decades of Democratic rule. He often opposed pork-laden bills that would enlarge the deficit.
Blunt, former president of Southwest Baptist University and the father of Missouri's governor, entered Congress in 1997 - 10 years after our own representative, U.S. Rep. Fred Upton, R-St. Joseph.
That's because House Republicans set up a system by which members of Congress rise to leadership positions in part based on their ability to generate campaign cash.
Both parties unveiled reform plans last week that leave unchanged the flow of money to political campaigns, which remains a bigger problem than travel, lavish meals, gifts or luxury skybox tickets when it comes to serving the nation's interests rather than special interests.
The GOP set up the “K Street Project” to force lobbying firms to hire more Republicans, cementing ties between Capitol Hill and the Washington Street where lobbyists work.
Blunt in 2002 tried to stick in a homeland security bill a provision to increase penalties on the sale of stolen cigarettes.
That provision was backed by Philip Morris. The woman he was dating, now his wife Abigail, happens to be a lobbyist for Altria, the parent company of Philip Morris.
It won't be easy finding a member of Congress with the clout and experience to be majority leader who doesn't have a closetful of lobbying skeletons.
During the past six years, members of Congress made more than 6,600 trips worth $19.6 million at the expense of private organizations.
House Speaker Dennis Hastert received $58,000 in campaign contributions from Abramoff and his clients.
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid got $30,500 in donations from Abramoff and his clients.
In the meantime, “There's been a consolidation of power by the Republican Congress and this White House in which, if you are the ordinary voter, you don't have access,” Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., said Wednesday, defending Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's description of the House of Representatives as a “plantation” because of the top-down way the GOP runs Congress.