Senate passes lobbyist bill

Critics say restrictions on gifts, meals fail to address key areas

March 30, 2006|By JILL ZUCKMAN | JILL ZUCKMAN,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

WASHINGTON -- On the day that lobbyist Jack Abramoff was sentenced to nearly six years in prison for conspiracy and wire fraud, the Senate voted overwhelmingly to pass legislation reining in lobbyists, but the bill's prospects of becoming law are uncertain.

Public-interest advocates derided the measure for failing to address key areas of influence-peddling, such as privately funded travel for members of Congress and flights on corporate jets at greatly reduced fares.

Several prominent senators who had fought for strict ethics rules voted against the bill, saying they were disappointed with the final version.

"Given that Mr. Abramoff got five years in the pokey today, the notion that this is the best we can do doesn't make sense," said Sen. Barack Obama, an Illinois Democrat who was chosen by Democratic leaders to help shape the lobbying legislation but voted against it.

The vote was 90-8 to prohibit members of Congress from accepting gifts or meals from registered lobbyists and to require those lobbyists to disclose their activities in quarterly reports available electronically to the public.

The bill would also prohibit former members of Congress and the executive branch from lobbying their one-time colleagues for two years, up from the current one year.

The Senate acted after the Abramoff case and the recent conviction of former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham, a California Republican, on bribery and corruption charges, and amid the investigation into former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, a Texas Republican.

Concerns have grown that the investigations, indictments and guilty pleas might harm incumbents' re-election efforts in November.

Sen. Susan M. Collins, a Maine Republican who helped craft the bill, said, "The reason this is so worthwhile and so important is we cannot tackle the big issues facing our country if the public does not trust us to act in the public interest. Too often, the public is convinced that the big decisions are tainted by improper influence."

Enthusiasm for such legislation has waned since the start of the year. In the House, Speaker Dennis Hastert, an Illinois Republican, initially proposed an ambitious package of reforms. Since then, members of the Republican conference have strenuously objected to many of the proposals.

Hastert's legislation has been dispersed among five House committees, and he has asked them to complete their work next week, though no work has begun.

"This is not popular stuff," said Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, a Connecticut Democrat who supported the Senate measure yesterday.

Public-interest advocates said the Senate effort falls far short of what is needed to clean up the relationships between lawmakers and lobbyists.

"This bill is nothing to write home about," said Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, an advocacy group for lobbying and campaign finance reform. "Certainly, it is not an appropriate response to the concerns of the American people about the corruption and lobbying scandals in Washington."

Wertheimer said senators rejected calls to create an Office of Public Integrity to investigate possible violations of Senate rules. And he noted that the legislation lacks disclosure provisions for lobbyists who finance lavish parties for congressmen at the national political conventions, contribute to foundations and other charities controlled by lawmakers and pay for retreats held by members of Congress.

In addition, the legislation does nothing to restrict privately funded travel for members of Congress. Some of those trips have led to excesses such as lavish golf outings in Scotland. Others have included educational outings to Israel and other nations, and public policy forums sponsored by the Aspen Institute.

Many corporations curry favor by lending corporate jets to members of Congress in exchange for the cost of a first-class airplane ticket. The Senate legislation would not curtail that practice.

Many senators said they voted for the bill with mixed emotions.

"I think it's a step forward," said Illinois Sen. Richard J. Durbin, the assistant Democratic leader. But Durbin said the measure does not address the relationships between lobbyists and lawmakers related to campaign fundraising.

"A lobbyist can put out a banquet for a fundraiser," Durbin said, even though that same lobbyist cannot pay for a senator's lunch.

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat, said that until elections are publicly financed, lobbyists will continue to wield influence in all areas of public policy on behalf of their clients because of their ability to raise large sums of money for campaigns.

"There's no question we would have a student loan program that worked for students and not the banks if it weren't for lobbyists," Kennedy said.

Jill Zuckman writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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