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Will Pitt: All the Way on Lobbying Reform

All the Way on Lobbying Reform

By William Rivers Pitt
t r u t h o u t | Perspective

Wednesday 22 November 2006

The names are well known by now. Congressman Tom DeLay (R-Texas) was indicted for money-laundering and bounced from the House of Representatives. Congressman Bob Ney (R-Ohio) pleaded guilty to accepting bribes. Congressman Randy Cunningham (R-Calif.) likewise pleaded guilty to accepting bribes.

There are more, many more. The list is long but far from distinguished, and hovering over it all is disgraced super-lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who has recently begun his prison sentence for a vast bribery scheme even as he cooperates with investigators.

The ugly truth behind the criminal enterprise organized by Abramoff in the House of Representatives inspired the Democrats, in the run-up to the midterms, to call loudly and long for reforms to the lobbying processes within Congress. In early January of 2006, Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee executive director John Lapp released a statement on the matter: "Republicans in Congress seem to have finally discovered the need for ethics and lobbying reform in Washington. After Democrats have spent years pushing for real ethics and lobbying reform to clean up Washington, it is disgraceful that it took the indictments of Tom DeLay and the guilty pleas of super-lobbyist and K-Street aficionado Jack Abramoff to shake them to their senses."

"Democrats in Congress have introduced legislation that will mean aggressive, groundbreaking, meaningful reform of the ethics and lobbying practices in Washington," continued Lapp. "Republican alternatives are weak answers to the systemic corruption in Washington, and they only scratch the surface of the ethics scandals plaguing the Republican Congress. Congressional Democrats have been pushing to clean up Congress since long before the indictments started coming down on the culture of corruption. We continue to wait for Republicans to join us."

A Washington Post article titled "Democrats Unveil Lobbying Curbs," which appeared two weeks after the Lapp statement, laid out in broader detail some of the lobbying reforms proposed by Democrats:

Rather than limiting the value of a gift to $20, as House Republicans are considering, Democrats would prohibit all gifts from lobbyists. Democrats also take direct aim at some of the legislative practices that have become established in the past 10 years of Republican rule in Congress. They vowed to end the K Street Project, under which Republicans in Congress pressure lobbying organizations to hire only Republican staff members and contribute only to Republican candidates.

Lawmakers would have to publicly disclose negotiations over private-sector jobs, a proposal inspired by then-House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman W.J. "Billy" Tauzin's job talks in 2003 that led to his hiring as president of the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America in January 2005. Executive branch officials who are negotiating private-sector jobs would need approval from the independent Office of Governmental Ethics.

Under the Democrats' plan, House and Senate negotiators working out final versions of legislation would have to meet in open session, with all members of the conference committee - not just Republicans - having the opportunity to vote on amendments. Legislation would have to be posted publicly 24 hours before Congressional consideration. Democrats also proposed to crack down on no-bid contracting and to require that any person appointed to a position involving public safety "possess proven credentials."

The Democratic calls for reform before the election proved to be one of the central reasons the GOP found itself on the losing side of an electoral rout. 41 percent of voters polled described the corruption and scandals that plagued the GOP majority as "extremely important" to their decision at the polls. The size of the Democratic victory on November 7th gives the new majority a powerful mandate to make the necessary changes to the way business is done on the Hill.

While the new majority appears to be moving toward assembling and passing a significant reform package, a number of important steps are in danger of being left aside. Proposals are being floated to create public funding for candidates, thereby restricting the power of private persons and corporations to take over the process by way of the checkbook. Another proposal would create an independent ethics watchdog to enforce the new rules, as well as the old rules that have been all too often ignored.

Finally, and perhaps most significantly, a proposal has been made to restrict earmarks, commonly known as "pork." Earmarks are anonymously planted into legislation, and are basically the way Congress directs vast amounts of taxpayer money into their own districts. In 2005, some 15,000 earmarks were dropped into various pieces of legislation for a total cost of $47 billion. The most notorious of these was the $223-million earmark for the "Bridge to Nowhere" in Alaska. Earmarks figured prominently in several of the GOP scandals that inspired these calls for reform in the first place.

As it stands, these important proposals are being debated by the new majority, and the members are split on whether to pursue these changes along with the rest of the reform package. Lobbying reform legislation is slated for debut early next year, just after the new majority is sworn in.

According to Tuesday's Washington Post, strategies are already being laid out to make the most out of the push for new rules. "Instead of forwarding one big bill," reported the Post, "Democrats will put together an ethics package on the House floor piece by piece, allowing incoming freshmen to take charge of high-profile issues and lengthening the time spent on the debate. The approach will ensure that each proposal - including banning gifts, meals and travel from lobbyists as well as imposing new controls on the budget deficit - is debated on its own and receives its own vote. That should garner far more media attention for the bill's components before a final vote on the entire package."

The proposed reforms go far, but need to go further. It is not enough for the new majority to say "The GOP is bad, but we will be better, so trust us." This is less about which party is more corrupt, and more about a process that is in itself corrupting. The American people spoke quite clearly during the election: they want the Augean stables cleaned out, and the Democrats now have the power to do so. Public financing of campaigns, an independent watchdog to enforce the rules, and a restriction on earmarks, along with the other proposed reforms, would go a long way to fulfilling the demands of the electorate.


William Rivers Pitt is a New York Times and internationally bestselling author of two books: War on Iraq: What Team Bush Doesn't Want You to Know and The Greatest Sedition Is Silence. His newest book, House of Ill Repute: Reflections on War, Lies, and America's Ravaged Reputation, will be available this winter from PoliPointPress.

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