Everything old is new again


    “Trailing its slimy length from gallery to committee room, at last
    it lies stretched at full length on the floor of Congress, this
    dazzling reptile.” That’s how a reporter in 1869 described lobbyists, a
    group that has been wooing, advising and many say corrupting Congress
    from its earliest days until the latest scandal involving disgraced
    influence-peddler Jack Abramoff.

    As with past scandals, lawmakers
    are suddenly seeking new controls over an industry they depend on for
    information and in some cases use for their own personal or political
    advantage.

    Since the last lobbying ethics act passed in 1995,
    “the lobbying industry has grown exponentially, new strategies for
    evading restrictions have emerged, and the laws and ethics rules have
    failed to keep pace,” said a recent statement by three lawmakers,
    Reps., Marty Meehan, D-Mass., and Rahm Emanuel, D-Ill., and Sen. Russ
    Feingold, D-Wis., authors of one of several reform measures that have
    been introduced.

    But if change is overdue for some, for others it
    is overkill. “My concern is that we are rushing to judgment,” said Paul
    Miller, president of the American League of Lobbyists. Without looking
    at the lack of enforcement of current rules, “I’m not even sure you can
    blame the system.”

    Miller said Abramoff, who defrauded Indian
    tribe clients of millions while arranging lavish trips and meals for
    public officials, hardly represents the 20,000 to 25,000 law-abiding
    lobbyists working in Washington. But he lamented that lobbyists never
    have enjoyed a good reputation and “this is a scandal that will
    probably set us back years.”

    Even in the First Congress, one
    senator wrote of how New York merchants employed “treats, dinners,
    attentions” to delay passage of a tariff bill.

    Lobbying became
    particularly intense in the post-Civil War Congress, and in 1872 a
    House member was caught distributing railroad stock to colleagues in
    return for their votes on railroad legislation. It was about that time
    that the newspaper correspondent described lobbyists as reptiles, Sen.
    Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., said during an address on the Senate’s history.

    “This
    town is swarming with lobbyists, so you can’t throw bricks in any
    direction without hitting one,” Woodrow Wilson told reporters in 1913.

    In
    1919 Congress barred lobbying with federal funds, and a 1946 law
    required lobbyists to register and file reports of their expenses and
    contributions to members of Congress.

    The next major lobbying
    reform bill didn’t pass until 1995. That measure broadened the
    definition of lobbying and required professional lobbyists to fully
    disclose who they are working for, what issues they are lobbying and
    roughly how much was being spent.

    But Roberta Baskin, executive
    director of the Center for Public Integrity, which watches the lobbying
    industry, said the act put “squishy rules on the books and really no
    enforcement.”

    She said that while lobbyists spend $2 billion a
    year _ more than twice what goes into financing political campaigns _
    Congress has a tiny staff to oversee the massive reports filed by
    lobbying firms, and the Justice Department rarely pursues incidents of
    lobbyists failing to register or report their activities.

    Current
    congressional rules cap gifts to lawmakers at $50 per item and $100 per
    year from any individual, including lobbyists. Lobbyists are barred
    from paying for congressional travel but can arrange for their clients
    to pay for trips, a ploy used by Abramoff. Lobbyists must file
    semiannual reports of the issues they are promoting, but don’t have to
    specify what officials they meet.

    Members of Congress can become
    lobbyists after retiring, but are generally barred from contact with
    their former colleagues for one year. Baskin said that since 1998 some
    250 former members of Congress have registered as lobbyists.

    Among
    the bills Congress will consider this year are proposals to ban all
    gifts from lobbyists, require lawmakers to pay charter, rather than
    lower-cost first-class airfare when using corporate jets and barring
    lobbyists from paying for trips, arranging them or accompanying
    lawmakers on them.

    Rep. David Dreier, R-Calif., who is heading
    the House GOP effort to craft new ethics rules, said he is considering
    proposing a total ban on all privately funded trips, ending
    fact-finding trips financed by think tanks or interest groups that at
    times can be light on fact-finding and heavy on entertainment.

    Other
    proposals would slow the “revolving door” from Congress to lobbying,
    making lawmakers wait two years. They would require quarterly reports,
    including information on contacts with members, and extend disclosure
    requirements to “grassroots” lobbyists, those trying to sell an issue
    through advertising, toll-free phone lines and computerized direct mail.

    Miller
    said his organization is beginning a new voluntary certification
    program and plans more education courses for lobbyists to ensure
    compliance with the rules. The House and Senate would be advised to do
    the same, he said, noting that when it comes to unscrupulous conduct
    “it takes two to tango.”

    ___

    On the Net:

    Center for Public Integrity: http://www.publicintegrity.org/

    American League of Lobbyists: http://www.alldc.org/

    © 2006 The Associated Press