Culture of Lobbying May Resist Reform

Times Staff Writers

Amid great fanfare, Republican and Democratic leaders this week called for tough new rules that they vowed would curb the ability of lobbyists to use lavish gifts to influence Congress.

But a crucial question remains: whether either party's plans would alter the close relationship between the capital's lobbyists and lawmakers.

Many groups that want stricter lobbying laws say they are encouraged by the plans outlined and the rhetoric offered. But the measures, they say, will be truly sweeping only if additional steps are taken.

The proposals still must be written into legislation, and only then will it become clear whether they are as tough as lawmakers have proclaimed them to be.

The lobbying rules also must be backed by solid enforcement mechanisms, critics say. And many say the only way Congress can truly change how lobbyists deal with lawmakers is if it also enacts campaign finance reform -- a provision missing from both parties' plans.

"There are going to be changes," said Fred Wertheimer, president and chief executive of Democracy 21, a government watchdog group. "The battle is going to be over whether those changes are strong and effective."

Congress has been spurred to action by former lobbyist Jack Abramoff's guilty pleas to federal fraud and conspiracy charges stemming from his dispersal of gifts, travel and campaign contributions to lawmakers. Abramoff has agreed to help prosecutors probe his relationships with members of Congress, raising the prospect that more Capitol Hill figures could face charges.

The scandal has rocked Washington and promises to be a key theme in November's elections, when Republican control of the House and Senate is at stake.

"There is what I call the pre-Abramoff plea bargain period and the post-Abramoff plea bargain period," Wertheimer said. "We are seeing, at least for the moment, a ... war unleashed between Democrats and Republicans" attempting to claim the lead in reining in lobbyists.

The fight is shaping up to be fiercely partisan.

"The Republicans have turned Congress into an auction house for sale to the highest bidder," House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) said Wednesday as Democrats laid out their package of proposed legislative and rules changes. The Democratic proposals came one day after House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and other Republicans unveiled their lobbying law overhaul proposals.

Appearing at a news conference, Pelosi and other Democrats contended that the close ties between congressional Republicans and lobbyists had directly affected voters by producing legislation that helped special interests at the expense of the majority of Americans.

"Instead of meeting with lobbyists, it's time to start meeting with some of the 45 million Americans with no healthcare," Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) said.

The news conference was one of several events across the country that the Democrats staged as part of a campaign to blame Republicans for a "culture of corruption."

Democrats and the liberal activist group Moveon.org picketed outside the Washington office of GOP anti-tax activist Grover Norquist, carrying signs that said "Stop Corruption." Norquist is one of the originators of the K Street Project, which presses business interests to hire Republicans as staff members and lobbyists rather than Democrats who might not share the GOP priorities of smaller government, lower taxes and defeating trial lawyers.

Howard Dean, head of the Democratic National Committee, promoted his party's lobbying crackdown during an appearance in Columbus, Ohio.

"The cost of corruption is real to Ohioans, and it's real to Americans, and we're going to put an end to that," Dean said from a room next to the ceremonial Statehouse office of Gov. Robert A. Taft. Taft, a Republican, is under fire for accepting gifts including a golf outing from a GOP fundraiser who is at the center of a scandal over more than $10 million missing from state workers' compensation funds.

In visiting Ohio, Dean wanted to link the state scandal with the Abramoff investigation. Among the figures touched by that probe is Rep. Bob Ney, a prominent Ohio Republican.

Ney recently stepped down from his position as chairman of the House Administration Committee -- which would be responsible for producing much of the lobbying legislation -- as he awaits the outcome of the federal probe into his relationship with Abramoff.

Republicans, countering that some Democrats are tangled in ethics problems of their own, point out that Abramoff's Indian tribal clients gave money to members of both parties. Democrats argue that money from Abramoff himself, and most of his attention, went to Republican lawmakers.

Despite the political theater Wednesday, Democrats offered proposals that in many respects were similar to those laid out the day before by Hastert and Rep. David Dreier (R-San Dimas), chairman of the House Rules Committee.

Both parties say they want to ban travel funded by private groups, a favorite perk of lawmakers and their staffs that allows them to go around the globe on fact-finding missions.

Both want to put tougher restrictions on gifts that lawmakers can accept from lobbyists, with Democrats saying gifts should be banned and Republicans saying they should not be worth more than $20.

Both parties say former lawmakers and staffers who join lobbying firms should wait two years, instead of the current one year, before they can begin lobbying their old colleagues.

Although banning gifts and private travel would not end contact between lobbyists and lawmakers, it would be a significant change, according to groups outside Congress as well as Capitol Hill staff members who have pushed for new rules.

"A lobbyist gift ban and privately funded travel are big deals, because it is just so common," said one senior Democratic staffer who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. "It is a part of the culture here. Staff go on fact-finding trips financed by industry and other groups. This stuff is happening all the time."

For staff and lawmakers, the staff member said, "it would mean that the cushiness of the job -- the perks, the enjoyment of being able to have a lavish lifestyle when working on a government paycheck -- is lost." For lobbyists, "it will in some sense level the playing field" between those organizations that can afford expensive lobbyists and can foot the bill for overseas travel and those that cannot, the staffer said.

Most important, the staffer said, "is that what you are seeing is an arms race here. There is a real opportunity to continue to push for stronger legislation in the current atmosphere, where people are going to be afraid to take votes against good, solid proposals."

Critics pointed out that none of the proposals on the table would end the power of money in Washington.

Lobbyists and their clients would still be able to contribute to election campaigns and would still be able to underwrite the sort of lavish campaign fundraising events held routinely at sports centers and resorts across America. Neither Republicans nor Democrats are offering new campaign finance measures that would put an end to such affairs -- yet. But Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) has said he will try to place new restrictions on the ability of lobbyists to hold campaign fundraisers.

"You can't keep money and influence out of government in Washington -- it's been tried," said Stan Brand, a defense attorney who specializes in ethics issues. "You can restrain it around the edges, and eventually people find ways of getting through."

In the end, Brand said, it is not changes in congressional rules that matter, but the fear of being indicted that will act as a corrective on the system.

The Abramoff case, he said, illustrates that "anybody who has violated the law in a direct way is going to be charged by the Justice Department. That is what is going to produce the restraint on conduct."

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