Lobbying reform bill nearly dies in House

September 30, 1994|By Karen Hosler | Karen Hosler,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- Would-be congressional reformers' best chance to have something to take home to their constituents this fall -- a new law imposing tighter rules on lobbying and congressional gifts -- barely survived yesterday, overcoming an effort by House Republicans to derail the legislation.

Prospects for final enactment of the lobby bill are uncertain in the Senate, where there is far less passion for reform and the time before adjournment is so brief that a handful of senators can block anything.

In the House, after a vitriolic session haunted by the impending midterm elections, scores of lawmakers reversed their original positions to endorse the measure by an overwhelming 306 to 112.

The bill would sharply tighten disclosure requirements on lobbyists and impose new limits on the gifts, meals, entertainment and travel that lawmakers may accept.

But the final tally came after 170 House Republicans joined 35 Democrats, mostly veterans, on a nearly successful procedural attempt to block the measure, which had been a top priority of a band of Democratic freshmen who promised to change the way things are done in Washington -- so far without much success.

The procedural move failed -- on a vote of 216 to 205 -- only after House leaders persuaded some Democrats to change their votes before the final count. In one particularly angry exchange, Rep. John Bryant, a Texas Democrat, accused Republicans of trying to create a smoke screen of phony arguments against the bill to protect their perquisites.

"You are just concerned about more freebies, and this bill says no to the freebie-seeking members of Congress," Mr. Bryant charged. Outraged Republicans demanded and got an apology.

The three other top priorities of the freshmen reformers are in worse shape. Senate resistance has developed to a bill to bring Congress under the same employment and discrimination laws as the rest of the nation. A proposal to reform campaign finance laws is being filibustered to death by the Senate Republicans. An attempt to streamline congressional procedures never got off the ground.

Democrats sense a strong Republican desire to deny them any victories to take home to the voters.

"What amazes me is that the House Republicans stood out on the Capitol steps Tuesday and made all these promises about reforms they would make if they take control after the elections this year, and then the very next day, when they had a chance to make a real change, 170 of them tried to kill it on a procedural vote," said Rep. Karen Shepherd, a Democratic freshman from Utah.

Common Cause, the citizens' advocacy group, hailed the legislation yesterday as a long overdue rewrite of a "loophole-ridden lobby registration law enacted in 1946 that will for the first time provide the public with accurate information about the amount being spent to lobby members of Congress."

But House Republican Whip Newt Gingrich of Georgia whipped up overnight a major crusade against it by warning his colleagues Tuesday that the new reporting requirements would have a "chilling" effect on lobbying activities by grass-roots and religious organizations.

Further, Mr. Gingrich warned the House that a "liberal, secular, anti-religious" appointee of the Clinton administration would be deciding whether small, ad hoc religious groups who come together to lobby on a certain issue would be required to comply with the new law.

Among the more than 75 Republicans who changed their votes to support the legislation was Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest of Maryland's Eastern Shore, who said he was concerned enough to vote against the bill on a procedural move.

DTC But after checking with Common Cause and his staff, Mr. Gilchrest said, he decided that the bill "wasn't as bad as I thought it was, although I still worry about over-regulating the system."

Among the rest of the Maryland delegation, all four Democrats, in addition to Republican Constance Morella of Montgomery County, supported the lobby bill all the way through. Republicans Helen Delich Bentley of Baltimore County and Roscoe G. Bartlett of Western Maryland opposed it.

Many Democrats agree with a Republican argument that a bill that fails to limit the flow of contributions from lobbyists into lawmakers' campaigns won't have much impact.

"This is not real reform," said Baltimore Democratic Rep. Kweisi Mfume.

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