Program

What Difference Will It Make if Lobby Reforms Wait Until '07?

It now appears unlikely that the 109th Congress will revive the moribund lobby reform legislation before the sine die adjournment. Who would have thought, when I cautioned Congress in these pages in January against overreacting to the Jack Abramoff scandal, that even the modest set of reforms that did emerge still would be languishing in some corner of the Capitol 10 months later?

In their book "The Broken Branch," authors Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein wrote that the Abramoff affair "was on the verge" of being "the biggest corruption scandal in Washington in 125 years." But how do things look today? Does the scandal cast a large, dark cloud over the Capitol?" No, because if it did, pollsters would have picked up by now on a strong, anti-incumbent mood pulsating through the electorate; and that just isn't happening.

Are Republicans being blamed en masse by voters because some have been the main recipients of Black Jack's treasure chest? Again, it doesn't seem to be rocking any Richter scales, though the GOP is in danger of losing several seats for a variety of other reasons.

Why didn't Congress enact something before the elections to insulate itself from charges it was lax on low-lifes? And why isn't the public clamoring for a much bolder set of reforms? The second question answers the first: The public either doesn't care or doesn't understand what all the media fuss is about. And Members take their cues from their constituents.

The people realize there always have been a few rotten apples in every Congressional barrel since the beginning of the Republic. Polls consistently have shown over time that people believe most Members of Congress are only out for themselves and care more about the special interests than about people like them.

So, people are not particularly surprised when a few officials get caught doing odious deeds. The fact the current legal system seems to handle things effectively does not seem to cry out for more rules and laws. Yes, there are some alleged misdeeds that prosecutors don't bring to trial. But voters still have a way of sniffing them out and dealing with them at the polls. Nobody wants to be represented by a national embarrassment.

While the lack of public urgency or interest helps to explain why Republicans are in no particular rush to enact the lobby reform bill, it raises the question of whether there is anything in either chamber's package that should be salvaged during the lame-duck session.

First, though, it's important to look at what already has been done in response to the scandal. In February, the House adopted a rule change prohibiting former Members and officers who are registered lobbyists from access to the floor and adjoining rooms, and from using the House gym. Prior to this change, former-Member lobbyists were not supposed to go on the floor if they had an interest in any legislation that had been activated even at the subcommittee stage. However, that rule blatantly was ignored and in dire need of tightening.

Then, last month, the House adopted a rule change requiring publication of the names of Members sponsoring earmarks in committee reports on spending, tax or authorizing bills, as the Senate had done. The original House-passed lobby bill only applied to appropriations earmarks. The new rule obviously will need more tweaking as loopholes and glitches surface. But it's a good start. The Senate should follow the House lead on both the floor access and earmark rule changes, but stick with its tougher point of order on conference report earmarks.

What else in the House or Senate lobby reform packages should be acted on? In my Jan. 18 editorial piece, I urged that, rather than rushing to judgment on ill-considered and radical reforms, Congress should step back and examine what current rules and laws might be made to work more effectively. And I concluded that better ethics education of Members and staff is the key to better behavior.

Both chambers, to their credit, included some aspect of mandatory ethics training in their bills. The Senate bill required such training for Senators and staff, while the House version exempted Members. I don't buy the argument that Members somehow are constitutionally immune from a requirement that they learn their own ethics rules. They already are mandated by House rules, for instance, to take a secrecy oath regarding classified materials and to be subject to random drug testing.

Mandatory ethics training for Members and staff should be acted on separately as changes in rules when Congress returns next month so that the program is fully developed and operational on the opening day of the new Congress. There is no reason why the training and certification process cannot be administered online as many firms now do with their computer security training, testing and certification.

Furthermore, pre-clearance by the House ethics committee of privately funded trips (currently voluntary until the lobby law is enacted), should be made mandatory by House and Senate rule changes during the lame-duck session.
Next year, Congress may want to revisit other items that have been left on the cutting room floor. But it should avoid ramming anything through on the opening day. Changes in ethics rules need more time, hearings and deliberation — a painful lesson Republicans learned last year when ill-conceived changes in the House ethics process were forced through on opening day, only later to be rolled back when the embarrassment factor became overwhelming.

Don Wolfensberger is director of the Congress Project at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and former staff director of the House Rules Committee.

Copyright 2006 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved.