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A Moral Plea--OK but Not Enough : Only legislation will bring true lobbying reform

The frustrating but essential effort to curb the inordinate influence that free-spending special interest groups exert over Congress goes on. In his State of the Union address this week President Clinton, noting Congress’ failure last year to pass a responsible reform plan, proposed a novel course of moral action.

In the absence of formal restraints on the kind of lobbying practices that see often expensive treats being swapped for votes, Clinton urged the legislators simply to say no--no to the temptations of meals, entertainment and all the other freebies that are the common currency of deep-pockets lobbyists who seek to gain a sympathetic ear and a friendly vote for their clients.

A BIT OF HEAT: Will the sinners heed this appeal to their presumed essential goodness? Alas, this seems to be another of those issues in which, as Mae West so famously remarked, goodness has nothing to do with it. For now it can be predicted that the unhealthy symbiotic relationship between the lobbyists and the lobbied will continue. But by again calling attention to the inexcusably loose code of conduct under which Congress operates, Clinton may at least have caused some to squirm.

It’s worth recalling that in fact both houses of Congress last year did pass strong measures that would have toughened disclosure requirements for lobbyists and barred members of Congress from accepting their gifts. What happened after that wasn’t pretty. Senate Republicans led a filibuster against the report that came out of the conference committee after months of negotiations. The basis for the late-in-the-day GOP complaints was a professed concern that the bill would require grass-roots lobbying groups to disclose information about their contributors. That, supposedly, could have dissuaded some citizens worried about their privacy from getting involved in politics. But groups as disparate as Common Cause, Public Citizen and Ross Perot’s United We Stand America, all of which endorsed the bill, saw this as a false fear. “Nothing,” said a statement from United We Stand America, “would require us to report our membership lists or our members’ volunteer activities.”

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DEATH OF A BILL: There were two key reasons the bill was talked to death in the Senate. First, the lobbyists hated it, since it would have required anyone spending money or being paid to lobby Congress or the executive branch to register with a new federal agency and report what issues they were involved with, how much money they spent and where. The second reason the bill died is that too many members of Congress are happy to take all they can from lobbyists, to enjoy what Clinton mistakenly referred to as their perks. A perquisite is a benefit or privilege of office. A Congress that has come to regard favors provided by influence seekers as an entitlement is a Congress whose principles have become sadly corrupted.

The President’s challenge to change how lobbyists operate was a topic of discussion on Capitol Hill Wednesday. Good. What’s being allowed to go on is a scandal, and only Congress can end it.


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