As recently as a few weeks ago, almost no one in Washington showed much interest in lobbying reform. When Representative Marty Meehan of Massachusetts introduced a comprehensive reform bill in May 2005, not one Republican signed on, pushed for hearings or requested a floor vote. After Senator Russ Feingold unveiled similar legislation last July, he couldn't find a co-sponsor on either side of the aisle. Now suddenly, in the wake of Jack Abramoff's guilty plea, everyone is a self-styled reformer.
House Speaker Dennis Hastert canceled an overseas trip on January 8 and rushed back to Washington, proclaiming lobbying reform his highest legislative priority, to be enacted "as soon as possible." Senate majority leader Bill Frist announced he'd been working on a reform bill since November. John McCain and Chris Shays, two pioneers of campaign finance reform, also have a highly touted new reform proposal, along with Representative Mike Rogers of Michigan, a former FBI agent who's running for majority whip. (Here's a comparison  of three different bills.) Opinion polls indicate the cause for concern: 81 percent of respondents to a recent Pew Research poll  believe lobbyists routinely bribe lawmakers in Congress.
"It's a huge sea change," says Craig Holman, a lobbying expert for Public Citizen. "For two years I've been working on a lobbying reform bill and very few people would call me, let alone let me in the door." Today, Holman deadpans, "nearly every member of Congress and their grandmother wants to sponsor or co-sponsor legislative reform."
But a closer look suggests that the current push for reform isn't all it's cut out to be. The race for a new House majority leader, for example, pits two lawmakers, Roy Blunt and John Boehner, against each other. Both men boast "extensive ties to the same K Street lobbying world that stained [Tom] DeLay's reputation and spawned the Abramoff corruption scandal," the Washington Post recently reported.
For the Senate's lobbying bill, Frist tapped Rick Santorum, a leader of the infamous "K Street Project"--the effort to push Republicans into top lobbying positions, effectively transforming the profession into the fourth branch of government. Santorum, according to Paul Miller, president of the American League of Lobbyists, was "probably chosen because he's in a tight re-election race. If they were looking for somebody credible, they needed to pick somebody else."
On the House side, Hastert enlisted Representative David Dreier, a close DeLay ally who was instrumental in trying to overturn House ethics rules last year. As chair of the House Rules Committee, Dreier has frequently steered legislation written and favored by corporate lobbyists to final passage without allowing members to offer amendments or sometimes even read the bills before they vote. "We had to do some of the things we criticized once," Dreier told USA Today in June 2004.
The scandal's savior should be McCain, the veteran reformer who led the Senate Indian Affairs Committee investigation of Abramoff. The McCain-Shays bill calls for new and tighter disclosure requirements for gifts, travel expenses and other favors given from lobbyists to members; expands the definition of lobbyists to include grassroots groups run by the likes of Abramoff partner Michael Scanlon; and doubles the period of time before a former member of Congress can become a lobbyist. But the disclosure-driven McCain approach does little to crack down on contact between lobbyists and lawmakers, where the potential for scandal so often occurs. Instead of building on Feingold's effort, as watchdogs and Hill staffers expected, McCain stopped well short. "McCain's gone soft, much to my disappointment," Craig Holman said after the legislation was introduced in late December. "His bill would be a vast improvement, but I'd hate to lose an opportunity for fundamental reforms." McCain's current co-sponsors include Conrad Burns, who accepted more money from Abramoff than any other politician, and Joe Lieberman, the GOP's favorite senator.
Feingold's legislation, unlike McCain's, bans all gifts from lobbyists to lawmakers; prevents lawmakers-turned-lobbyists--such as Billy Tauzin, the former House Energy and Commerce Committee chair, who now runs the leading pharmaceutical industry trade group--from contacting members of Congress for two years; prohibits lobbyists from attending lawmaker retreats at places like the Aspen Institute; and takes away the privileges--floor access, gym passes, etc.--that lawmakers-turned-lobbyists enjoy.
What does this flurry of legislation mean practically and politically? Republicans could split the difference between the leadership bills and McCain's, leaving real reformers out in the cold. Or, in a fit of electoral panic, they could outdo both Feingold-Meehan and a soon-to-be-introduced plan by the Democratic leadership. Already, Hastert and Dreier have proposed banning all lobbyist-funded Congressional travel, the most far-reaching idea introduced thus far. "The plan is to be really bold and strong here," Dreier says. At a recent press conference, House minority leader Nancy Pelosi called a travel ban "only the beginning.... If we're ever going to have change, we must kill the K Street Project."
Watchdog groups have been heartened by the initial proposals, and say they plan on moving the strongest parts of all the various bills into one comprehensive piece of legislation. Even the best legislation, however, may not satisfy a public increasingly fed up with Congressional corruption. Ninety percent of respondents in a recent Washington Post/ABC News poll say it should be illegal for lobbyists to give members of Congress gifts, trips or other things of value. More than two-thirds of the public don't want lobbyists giving campaign contributions to Congressmen or Congressional candidates. A majority believe lobbyists shouldn't organize fundraisers on a candidate's behalf.
Implementing such suggestions would mean seriously rewiring the way Washington works. And few in Congress seem really to want that. As lawmakers scramble to give themselves political cover well before 2006, the systemic role that money plays in politics--the lock on incumbency, the advantages of big business in shaping legislation, the loopholes lobbyists always seem to exploit--rarely gets discussed. Ditto the obvious remedies: holding publicly financed elections, ending gerrymandering and giving power to outside watchdogs. Instead, self-interest dictates the discourse. Many of the people currently pushing to "reform" Congress created the very problems they're proclaiming to fix.