Sabotaging Congressional Reform

October 06, 1994

"This will change the way business is done in Washington," proclaimed Sen. Carl Levin when conferees from both parties agreed on a bill limiting the largess lobbyists can dispense in Congress. Not quite. If the bill does in fact pass -- which isn't quite the certainty the Michigan Democrat foresaw last month -- it would make lobbyists' lives a little more difficult. But what hasn't changed are the down-and-dirty tactics legislators in Washington habitually employ to foil reform attempts.

The lobbying disclosure and gift ban legislation has been working its way painfully through Congress for more than a year. Different versions passed the House and Senate by overwhelming margins. (So what if many legislators acted out of fear of retaliation by voters rather than agreement with the bill's provisions?) A bipartisan compromise between the two versions was promptly approved by the House. But the measure seems to be in serious trouble in the Senate.

A handful of Republicans have conjured up an excuse for delaying action on the bill -- killing it, naturally, for this Congress. The political sabotage appears to have started in the House, after an attempt to sidetrack the bill on a procedural vote was narrowly staved off by the Democratic leadership. Republicans started whispering that the bill would prevent grass roots organizations, particularly religious ones, from expressing their views to Congress. A few Senate Republicans, feigning horror at this specious attack on the First Amendment, are threatening a filibuster in the closing days of the session.

No one other than this tiny band of bushwhackers reads the bill as they profess to. Religious organizations are exempt from the lobbying restrictions, and most of the major groups that work Capitol Hill have endorsed the measure. Only individuals or organizations that spend more than 10 percent of their time lobbying Congress for pay would be covered. Hardly an infringement of the people's right to petition Congress.

Limiting legislators' lavish lunches, golf outings and visits to posh resorts would not strike a fatal blow at congressional corruption. But it would improve Congress' sadly tarnished reputation. Failure to enact the bill would deepen public cynicism about Congress.

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