A weak Congress needs tough reform

In Washington, we are undertaking a historic debate on lobbying reform. For the first time in over a decade, lawmakers of both parties have advanced serious proposals to reform a system that has careened out of control. With Congress and the White House under a cloud of scandal, now is the time to pass meaningful lobbying reform to fix a system that is broken, and restore the American people’s faith in government.

America has witnessed a disturbing trend over the past decade: Special interests have gotten a larger and larger say in the making of public policy in Washington. As the number of Washington lobbyists has exploded in the past 10 years, the voices of the people have been increasingly shut out. The result has been a system in which high-priced, high-powered special-interest lobbyists are invited into the back rooms of Congress to write legislation that helps their clients and often hurts working families.

Two recent cases, the energy and prescription-drug bills, demonstrate the extent of the problem. With oil-company lobbyists’ writing substantial portions of the energy bill, it is not surprising that their answer to rising gas prices and home-heating costs was to provide more tax breaks for themselves. Nor is it surprising that a prescription-drug bill written by pharmaceutical lobbyists explicitly forbids the federal government to purchase drugs in bulk and negotiate lower prices for seniors.

Time after time, the powerful have profited, while working Americans have paid the price.

Although the lobbying scandals have damaged the integrity of Congress as an institution, they have started a national debate and created a unique opportunity for reform. Thanks to the public outcry and resulting political pressure, a bipartisan consensus is emerging that laws governing relationships between lobbyists and members of Congress must be strengthened. By enacting tough reforms of lobbying laws, we can restore integrity to the system and ensure that Congress is serving the people’s interests, not the special interests.

Last spring, after consulting with bipartisan colleagues, congressional scholars and watchdog organizations, I introduced the Special Interest Lobbying and Ethics Accountability Act, a bill that would inject more disclosure and accountability in the relationships between Congress and lobbyists.

My bill would require both lobbyists and members of Congress to be more accountable for travel, meals and other favors. Building upon enforcement provisions that restored transparency and accountability to the campaign-finance system, my bill makes members of Congress responsible for disclosing more information up front about their contacts with lobbyists; prohibits lobbyists from planning or funding congressional trips; doubles the waiting period for former members and staff to lobby Congress; and creates stiff new fines and other penalties for breaking the law.

Ethics and lobbying reform will not be effective, however, unless the congressional oversight-and-enforcement process is strengthened. Last month, I introduced a bipartisan bill creating an independent, nonpartisan Office of Public Integrity, to investigate ethics complaints and make recommendations to the Ethics Committee.

The American people demand no less than the toughest, most comprehensive package of reforms, and deserve better than a government that is bought and sold by special interests. There is more to the scandals in Washington than individual bad actors, such as lobbyist Jack Abramoff and Rep. Tom DeLay, R-Texas. The rules themselves are a scandal.

We must reform the system and fundamentally change how the business of the American people is done. Nothing short of a complete overhaul of the current lobbying rules will restore confidence in government and raise the standards of behavior in the nation’s capital.

(Martin Meehan, a Democrat, is a congressman from Massachusetts.)