The reform charade

Republicans and Democrats alike are touting their pathetic versions of lobbying "reform." Here are five things to look for if you want to know whether they're serious.

Published January 27, 2006 12:47PM (EST)

Even after pleading guilty to corruption, defrocked lobbyist Jack Abramoff still has a remarkable ability to influence Capitol Hill. Witness in recent weeks the sudden, blustery calls for "reform" by Republican and Democratic leaders alike.

At a press conference last week, endangered Republican Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, who bragged last November about his ties to lobbyists, now claimed he had no close ties to lobbyists. Not to be outdone, Democratic Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, who employs a lobbyist to manage his own fundraising, warned the American people that lobbyists "have infiltrated government." Republican House Speaker Dennis Hastert, who funnels millions of dollars in pork barrel projects to his district each year, announced that the process of doling out such lucre needed reform. Meanwhile Rep. Jim Clyburn, a Democrat who has taken $146,000 in privately funded junkets, including one arranged by Abramoff, announced he would lead his party's "Clean House Task Force" on ethics reform.

It was enough to make your head spin -- as the printing presses rolled, the pundits stirred and all of Washington gave off the impression of a problem being addressed. "We are in a feeding frenzy right now, folks," declared Thomas Mann, a political analyst at the Brookings Institution. "We have seen in the last few days a veritable arms race of proposals to deal with the Abramoff problem."

But all the pomp obscured the narrow scope, and fuzzy focus, of the indignant lawmakers. Rather than tamperproof legislative language, the leaders of both parties offered nothing more than Boy Scout pledges to tinker with the edges of the pay-to-play system. They vowed to rein in lobbyist gifts and privately funded congressional travel. They promised to slow the revolving door that turns politicians into lobbyists with free passes to the congressional gym. Republicans said they would try to shut down the so-called 527 loophole, a funding mechanism that wealthy Democrats in particular have exploited. In apparent response, Democrats vowed to end no-bid contracts for companies like Halliburton.

As an opening salvo, it was not entirely insignificant. But all the rhetoric hardly provided a blueprint for ending the Capitol's "culture of corruption." To do that, congressional leaders will have to go much further. They can begin by taking a good long look in the mirror at their own ties to K Street, the downtown strip of office buildings bursting with more than 30,000 lobbyists. "It's not K Street that's the problem," explained Scott Lilly, formerly the Democratic chief of staff to the House Appropriations Committee. "It is the politicians who have squeezed every dime that they could out of the interests of this country to strengthen their positions with campaign funds." Republican Sen. Pete Domenici of New Mexico, an appropriations cardinal who is no stranger to the lobbying game, put it a bit more bluntly on Wednesday, "You know part of the problem is us," he told a Senate committee. "We get hooked into this system too."

So what does real reform look like? There is no simple answer or silver bullet. If history is any judge, each round of ethics reforms lasts only a few years before lobbyists, lawyers and lawmakers pierce it full of holes. But ethics crusaders still hope to capitalize on this rare political moment, hurled forth on a powerful wave of corruption scandals plaguing the Republican Party. Lawmakers may just be willing to confront their own failings.

That said, it's still an open question whether the final reforms, which are likely to be passed before the summer, will be anything more than cosmetic. For those keeping score at home, here is a list of five changes to look for in the coming months. If you see some version of them pass the floor of the House or Senate, you will know that the chance for substantial reform has not been wasted on indignant press conferences.

"The Joel Hefley Reform"

Stan Brand, a former Democratic counsel to the House, explains the problem this way: "If people are breaking the speed limit, the way to change that is to give tickets, not change the speed limit."

But in recent years, no one on Capitol Hill, particularly no one on the Ethics Committees, has shown an interest in handing out speeding tickets. With few exceptions, Republicans and Democrats still maintain an unofficial cease-fire, allowing all manner of violations to go unpunished unless federal prosecutors take interest. Part of the problem is that few in Congress want to serve on these enemy-making committees. If they do take the position, they risk banishment for doing their job. No one has forgotten the fate of the last House Ethics Committee chairman, Republican Rep. Joel Hefley of Colorado. A former ranch hand who still raises quarter-horses on the range, he chastised House Majority Leader Tom DeLay for three instances of unethical behavior. Within a year, Hefley was bounced from his chairmanship, though he remains in Congress.

The committees are now entirely AWOL. There have been no ethics inquiries into the Abramoff scandal or into the case of Rep. Duke Cunningham, a Republican of California, who recently pleaded guilty to fraud and conspiracy to commit bribery. Similarly, Rep. William Jefferson, a Louisiana Democrat whose aide has also pleaded guilty to aiding and abetting bribery, has yet to face a congressional investigation. In the face of widespread reports of lawmakers failing to disclose foreign trips or receiving inappropriate gifts, the House Ethics Committee does not even employ a chief of staff.

"The thing we need is not rules, but enforcement of rules," says Michael Surrusco, an official at the good-government group Common Cause. For this reason, outside ethics groups have made the creation of a new, independent congressional Office of Public Integrity their top priority. But the leadership -- both Democratic and Republican -- has largely been silent on the issue. Instead, the leaders continue to stoke the expectations of cynics who believe all the recent browbeating is nothing but show. No matter their merits, reforms don't matter if no one enforces them.

"The Congressional Sportsmen's Reform"

One of the key routes for Abramoff's money-laundering operation was a bogus charity for inner-city youth called the Capital Athletic Foundation. The foundation served as a slush fund for Abramoff's friends and golf junkets. Such nonprofits exist in abundance in Washington, and they come in all varieties. At one end of the spectrum, there are legitimate think tanks, organizations like the libertarian-conservative Cato Institute and the left-leaning Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, where politicians will speak on occasion. On the other end are more dubious organizations like Capital Athletic Foundation and the Congressional Sportsmen's Foundation.

Never heard of the Congressional Sportsmen's Foundation? It's the nonprofit arm of the Congressional Sportsmen's Caucus, a bipartisan group of lawmakers chaired by Democrats Ben Nelson, Ron Kind and Leonard Boswell and Republican Mike Crapo. The foundation is funded and run by lobbyists, trade groups and corporate sponsors. Its vice chairman is Todd Walker, the top lobbyist for the U.S. Smokeless Tobacco Co., the maker of Skoal and Copenhagen snuff. Its corporate benefactors include Wal-Mart and Lockheed Martin, as well as the National Rifle Association.

Though the group does not lobby directly, its "legislative coordinator," Sidney Allen, says the foundation's purpose is to serve as a "liaison between the sportsmen community and the Legislature." What this really means is that every year members of Congress travel to a shooting range to mingle with lobbyists and bring down clay pigeons. Before his bribery plea, Cunningham got the top score at the 2005 "Congressional Shootout," hitting 65 out of 75 pigeons. Cunningham called his victory "a great reminder of the important role we play in Congress protecting America's outdoor traditions."

The Sportsmen's Caucus is by no means alone. As the for-profit watchdog PoliticalMoneyLine points out, many of the more than 300 congressional caucuses funnel corporate money into congressional perks through affiliated nonprofit foundations. Among the top suspects are the Congressional Black Caucus (with funding from Anheuser-Busch, Coca-Cola, Philip Morris), the Congressional Fire Services Caucus (Motorola, State Farm, Raytheon), the Congressional Internet Caucus (America Online, Microsoft, Verizon), and the Congressional Caucus for Women's Issues (General Motors, Wyeth Pharmaceuticals).

These foundations may be restricted under new gift and travel restrictions proposed by the congressional leadership. But it is telling that no one in either party has yet proposed banning the groups outright.

"The Learjet Reform"

House Majority Whip Roy Blunt, the favorite to succeed DeLay as leader, used a private bird from restaurant chain Cracker Barrel to fly to a friend's funeral in his home state of Missouri. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist used one from drug company Schering-Plough to attend a fundraiser in Florida. The ranking Democratic leader in the House, Nancy Pelosi, used one from an insurance company, Ullico, to fly her home to San Francisco. The political committee of Republican Rep. Jim McCrery of Louisiana paid for a small fleet of them -- from General Electric, U.S. Smokeless Tobacco, International Game Technology -- to fly guests out for a wine tour in Napa Valley.

They are corporate jets, and they represent one of the most glaring exploitations of the ethics rules. They allow lawmakers to fly like corporate CEOs, while paying commercial airfare rates. Under the current rules, politicians and their staff can travel on private Learjets and Gulfstreams for a fraction of the trip's value. The corporations pay for the ride in exchange for unrestricted access to the lawmakers. The politicians need only reimburse for the price of a first-class ticket. According to a recent review by the Washington Post, congressional leadership used this loophole at least 360 times between 2001 and 2004. Blunt and DeLay were the most frequent fliers.

Sens. Russ Feingold and John McCain have both proposed reforms that would close this loophole, requiring lawmakers to pay for the cost of chartering the jet, not just the cost of a commercial ticket. But then Feingold and McCain are the sort of politicians who often wait years for their proposals to gain traction beyond good-government groups. To date, the highflying Democratic and Republican leadership has done little more than skirt the issue.

"The Organic Legislation Reform"

In theory, Congress creates law through a logical, open process. Specialized committees hold hearings to hash out issues. They draft legislation and send the proposal on to the full Congress, where the bill is debated before a full vote. That's how Congress is supposed to work, anyway.

In recent years, the lawmaking process increasingly takes place in the dead of night, just hours before a bill is scheduled for a final vote. This happened in 2003, when Hastert inserted a last-minute provision on behalf of a poultry farm that effectively gutted the value of "organic" food labels by permitting pesticide-laced feed for livestock. It happened again last year when Frist and Hastert inserted 11th-hour language in the Defense Appropriations bill after House and Senate negotiators had completed their work. The new language protects certain vaccine makers from liability lawsuits. In both cases, there was no public debate, no committee hearing, and no chance for most lawmakers to give their input.

"You can spend 20 years learning your business here, and be sidetracked by a 20-year-old kid in the leadership office," says Wisconsin Rep. David Obey, a Democrat who was first elected to Congress in 1969. He says such power invites corruption, because lobbyists need only concentrate their money and powers of persuasion on a few influential leaders. "The reason we have trouble as an institution is because you have had such an incredible concentration of power in the hands of the Republican leadership."

Obey is preparing to introduce a bill that would change the rules of the House to prevent these abuses. Over in the Senate, Democrats say they want to make public final negotiations between House and Senate leaders on bills. But all these proposals are a long way from becoming a reality, having few Republican supporters. As Obey explains, "The inclination will be for the people in charge of this place to try to preserve as much of their power as possible."

"The Tony Roda Reform"

On his Web site, lobbyist Tony Roda claims to have a "depth of experience, contacts, and knowledge of the Congressional process to assist his clients with their legislative initiatives." One of those contacts is Rep. David Dreier, the powerful chairman of the House Rules Committee, who is now leading the House GOP's lobbying-reform efforts. Roda, who did not return calls from Salon, is more than just any lobbyist for Dreier. He also serves as treasurer of the American Success PAC, Dreier's fundraising committee.

Dreier is not alone in employing a lobbyist as his treasurer. According to a recent report by the Center for Public Integrity, Democratic Sens. Harry Reid, Max Baucus, Blanche Lincoln and Byron Dorgan all use Williams C. Oldaker, a former Federal Election Commission official who has lobbied for Philip Morris, the Edison Electric Institute, and a number of hospitals and universities. Mark Valente III, a lobbyist for the Teamsters and the National Treasury Employees Union, oversees the political action committees of nine Republican members of the House. Richard B. Ladd, a former appropriations staffer who now lobbies for defense contractors, keeps a side job as a treasurer for Republican Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska, the chairman of the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee. Ladd says there is nothing improper about the arrangement: "I am not doing his thing because I lobby," he says. "I am supporting this because this is how I support the political process."

At minimum, however, this dual role of lobbyist and treasurer creates the opportunity for abuse. There is far less need for a wink and a nod if the person asking for a legislative favor is the same person who is cashing your checks. The current proposals for lobbying reform, however, fail to address this issue, as the political leadership shows no inclination to cut off the font of fundraising cash that pours in from lobbyists.

The list of possible reforms could go on. Leadership PACs could be abolished, lobbyists could be barred from throwing parties for politicians, and even denied the right to contribute to campaigns. But all this will depend on the continuing focus of the American people. History shows that cleanse-the-system movements dissipate quickly as the scandal that prompted them fades from the headlines.

Stan Brand, who worked on Capitol Hill back in the days of Watergate, has little doubt about the fate of the current orgy of reform: "I guarantee you if I live long enough, another 10 or 15 years, we will be having another one of these."

By Michael Scherer

Michael Scherer is Salon's Washington correspondent. Read his other articles here.

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