Nobody’s laughing now

A year ago, the idea that Congress would consider sharp curbs on lobbying would have been laughed off Capitol Hill.

In fact, that’s exactly what happened. The man doing the laughing was then-House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, who at a news conference derided the authors of a bipartisan lobbying measure and accused them of working on behalf of “leftist groups.”

Nobody’s laughing now. The Republican leadership in the House suddenly is leading the charge to write new limitations on the estimated $2 billion-a-year lobbying business in Washington.

The Republican turnaround can be explained by the story of two men _ lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who earlier this month acknowledged a conspiracy to bribe public officials, and DeLay, who was forced to give up his House leadership position after he was indicted on separate money-laundering charges.

But beyond those two men lies a bigger story of the sea change that’s occurred in the Washington lobbying world over the last decade.

Growing numbers of top congressional leaders, on both sides of the aisle, have left public life for the lucrative business of lobbying. In the last five years alone, the number of people registered to lobby the federal government has doubled, to more than 34,000. And increasingly, members of Congress have invited lobbyists to become part of their political teams, with some serving as campaign consultants and others heading up fund-raising operations.

According to the watchdog Center for Public Integrity, lobbyists served as treasurer on 79 lawmakers’ campaign and leadership funds between 1998 and 2004.

One upshot is that, more than ever, political contributions have become seen as a price of admission for those seeking support for their causes in Congress.

Some members of Congress talk about this transaction in ways that once would have been unheard of. When Rep. Richard Pombo, R-Calif., chairman of the House Resources Committee, told a Sacramento Bee reporter why Indian tribes had been major donors to his campaign, he said, “Obviously, they want to have some access.”

Inside the Beltway, some refer to this as “pay to play,” and critics say it’s gotten out of hand.

“The system of ‘pay to play’ has become much more blatant and brazen,” said Fred Wertheimer, who heads an advocacy group called Democracy 21 that mirrors Wertheimer’s decades-long crusade against money abuses in politics.

“What we’ve been seeing is almost a formalization of the linkage between lobbyists’ money and … political agenda,” he said.

Wertheimer is quick to say he doesn’t believe lobbyists’ cash is making its way into politicians’ pockets. The example of former Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham of California, who has admitted a conspiracy to accept bribe money from a defense contractor, “will continue to be extremely rare,” he said. Yet Wertheimer contends that the effect of today’s lobbying-and-money climate is just as corrupting.

Some say the cause for the recent ascension of lobbyists’ clout was the Republican takeover of the House in 1994 and DeLay’s so-called “K-Street Project,” in which he vowed hard-line tactics to increase Republicans’ presence in the city’s biggest lobbying firms.

Others say an equally large factor has been the rapid rise in federal spending, which has seen the budget grow more than 50 percent in the last eight years.

Whatever the reasons, there’s little doubt that the accounts of Abramoff’s extravagant lobbying antics are fostering a new look by the public at lobbying’s role in federal legislation.

According to a new Washington Post-ABC News Poll, two-thirds of Americans would prohibit lobbyists from contributing any campaign money to members of Congress or their political challengers. Almost as many, 58 percent, said the Abramoff investigation suggests “widespread corruption in Washington.”

Concerned that the Abramoff case could reflect badly on Republicans in this election year, House Speaker Dennis Hastert last week announced he would support new restrictions on lobbying, and dispatched Rep. David Dreier, R-Calif., to draft legislation.

The measure almost certainly will be less drastic than the ban on contributions favored by the public. Early indications are that Dreier will look to greater disclosure requirements _ on the donations lobbyists give lawmakers and the fund raisers they sponsor for candidates, for example.

However, Hastert said he’s also looking at a provision with real teeth: a sweeping ban on all non-governmental travel by members.

It’s not clear yet where the Republican leadership’s newfound interest in lobbying limits will go.

John Samples, who studies money and politics from the libertarian Cato Institute, says that depends on the public’s reaction, and he doubts that Americans will really engage on the issue.

“The public may not expect much from politicians in the first place,” he said, noting a recent Pew Poll that found 80 percent of Americans believe it’s commonplace for lobbyists to bribe members of Congress.

In any case, Samples says regulation is a risky course because new limitations often have unintended consequences.

“Do you really want to limit the ability of interests to advocate their positions in Washington?” he said.

The better option, he said, is to leave the job to American voters, who can simply discard unscrupulous members on Election Day. Samples acknowledged, though, that this part of the political balance has broken down in recent years with the rapid growth of all-but-safe congressional seats for House members.

“Ordinarily you’d think you might pay a political price if you take a lavish golfing trip to Scotland paid for by a lobbyist,” he said, referring to a now-famous 2000 trip taken by DeLay and paid for in part by Abramoff. “But when incumbents today presume overwhelming re-election you don’t have that worry as much.”

Despite new momentum for lobbying limits, some doubt that any new laws will have much affect on the Washington money machine.

“The problems go deeper,” said Thomas Mann, a longtime expert on money and politics at the Brookings Institution. “Congress itself needs to recover its comparative advantages as a genuinely deliberative and independent branch of government.”