Cramping Lobbyists' Style

May 25, 1994

Members of Congress indignantly deny they can be bought for the price of a good dinner. That's beside the point. What a lobbyist can buy for the price of a dinner, or a chance to mingle at a charity golf tournament, is access to a legislator or influential staff member. Access is power in Washington.

It means a lobbyist can deliver a client's message where it might not otherwise be heard. The closer to the power center a lobbyist can reach, the higher the fees. That's why the U.S. Senate's vote to sharply restrict gifts is more than symbolic.

No one on Capitol Hill believes the ban on gifts, still to be reconciled with a less stringent House version, will put lobbyists out of business. In some ways they perform an important function, in bringing information or viewpoints to legislators which can be constructive in drafting laws. But it levels the playing field just a bit, especially for those without fat expense accounts. Reducing legislators' attendance at the posh restaurants and resorts might draw them closer to the real world where their constituents live.

The Senate's adoption of the gift-restriction bill will break a logjam over a lobbyist registration and disclosure bill that promises to be a lot more effective in cleaning up Congress' act. It has been held up while both houses squabbled over the $100 dinners and free trips to golf resorts. The disclosure bill is no panacea, either, but it would hobble some of the more nefarious tactics of lobbyists. Voters would learn a lot more about who is doing what on Capitol Hill, and at what price.

Lobbying will never be wiped out in Washington, nor should it be. There is a fine line between professional pleading and exercising the right to petition the government, and sometimes the two can't be easily separated. Some legislators fail to understand that it is the excesses, not the practice itself, that gives lobbying a noisome reputation. Similarly, cut-rate haircuts or free parking at congested National Airport have reinforced the popular image of Congress as an institution seriously removed from the people it represents. More frequent mingling with ordinary constituents, rather than Gucci-shod power brokers, would go a long way to restoring Congress in public esteem.

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