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.