WASHINGTON — There’s the shame factor and then the fear factor. Both, according to one senator, explain the sudden congressional interest in cleaning up the relationships between lobbyists and lawmakers now that Jack Abramoff’s wheeling and dealing has been exposed.
Bills dealing with lobbying ethics that have been dormant for months are getting a new look as lawmakers digest the consequences of Abramoff pleading guilty to corruption and tax evasion charges, and his agreement to cooperate in an influence-peddling investigation that could taint dozens of members of Congress.
The “dramatic revelations” about Abramoff’s activities “will help spur reform,” said Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis. “That’s the way it always works.”
Feingold noted that the campaign-finance scandals of the 1996 presidential elections provided an impetus for eventually passing a new campaign-spending law he and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., had been pushing for years.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., reacting to the Abramoff’s guilty plea this week, has pledged to “examine and act on any necessary changes to improve transparency and accountability for our body when it comes to lobbying.”
The third-ranking Republican in the Senate, Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, is already working on legislation that could include steps to address some of the excesses revealed by the Abramoff case, which involved defrauding Indian tribe clients and arranging campaign contributions, trips, meals and entertainment for public officials they hoped to influence.
In the House, Republican leadership aides said there was a good chance that lobbying legislation will get a vote this year.
Rep. Rahm Emanuel, D-Ill., said the momentum for action is very different from last May when he said GOP leaders gave the cold shoulder to a lobbying-ethics measure he introduced with Rep. Marty Meehan, D-Mass. He said he was told that the bill was unnecessary, a stunt.
It’s now become clear, Emanuel said, that “we’ve got to overhaul the system that rewarded a pay-for-play practice.”
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who led Republicans to a House majority in 1995 by stressing how power had corrupted Democrats, said GOP leaders can no longer ignore the issue. “If they intend to retain a majority,” he told reporters, “they need to take the lead in saying to the country ‘we need to clean this mess up.’”
Bruce Josten, vice president for government affairs with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, one of Washington’s most influential lobbying groups, said he was “left incredulous” by the Abramoff case, adding that it “clearly is going to have a long tail reaching into Congress.”
There probably will be new rules and laws, he said. But, he added, “Congress needs to keep in mind that this is not a typical way of conducting business in this town.”
Bills already introduced would tighten regulations in such areas as disclosure, trips and entertaining, gift exchanges and moving from the public sector into lobbying jobs.
McCain, along with Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., and Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., are promoting legislation that would require grassroots organizations, often run by professional lobbyists, to disclose their lobbying activities. Lawmakers and their aides would have to pay fair market value for use of private planes. Sports and entertainment tickets in skyboxes would be valued at the cost of the highest priced ticket in the arena.
Like that bill, Feingold’s proposal has a “revolving door” provision that extends from one year to two years the waiting period for administration and congressional employees before they could take lobbying jobs. Feingold also would prohibit lobbyists from giving gifts to members or their staffs.
Rep. David Obey, D-Wis., with the backing of House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, has proposed a package that would bar lobbyists from paying for, sponsoring or arranging congressional trips. Obey, the senior Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, also would end some of the lobbying activities carried out by congressional leaders themselves, such as promising special projects to win votes for other legislation.
Lieberman said history has shown that the influence of money in politics will never be totally eradicated. But stronger laws and more disclosure will help restore the trust of Americans in the system, he said, and, “will make this for the short term a pretty pristine place to be.”