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

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.

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

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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