Senate's lobby reform: strong enough?

A bill that bans meals and gifts from lobbyists passed Wednesday, but critics say it falls short.

By Gail Russell Chaddock | Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor March 31, 2006

WASHINGTON - As senators hunkered down for a final vote on lobbying reform this week, a US district judge in Miami was sentencing ex-lobbyist Jack Abramoff to nearly six years in prison for fraud.

The buzz from the trial helped the Senate to a 90-8 vote to require more disclosure of lobbyists, but fell far short of the changes that reformers say is necessary to stem corruption.

The Abramoff sentence could have been longer, but his defense lawyers report that Mr. Abramoff has turned over thousands of documents to help federal investigations of bribery and corruption in Congress. Prosecutors wanted to reward his cooperation.

It's a coincidence not lost on members of Congress, who are reviving efforts to move reform legislation before fall elections.

"It is fitting and appropriate that we're completing our work in the Senate on this stage of the lobbying reform bill on the day that former lobbyist Jack Abramoff received his first prison sentence," said Sen. Susan Collins (R) of Maine, who chairs the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, after the vote.

The scandals involving Abramoff and former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R) of California, recently sentenced to eight years for bribery involving his placement of earmarks in spending bills for defense contractors, "prompted us to take a look at practices that, while legal, eroded public confidence in the integrity of our institutions here in Washington," she added.

The Senate's bill could have been tougher. The bill bans gifts from lobbyists, requires disclosure of spending on grassroots lobbying activities, and quarterly reports from lobbyists that would be available electronically - a first for the Senate.

However, proposals to ban congressional earmarks and privately funded travel failed to make it into the bill. So did a plan to create a new Office of Public Integrity to take the investigation of ethics charges out of the hands of senators.

Most important, the bill failed to close the door on the vast number of ways lobbyists can help members of Congress, including bundling campaign contributions, sponsoring fundraisers, paying for member events, contributing to a lawmaker's charity.

"We would have been much, much better off with no bill," says Keith Ashdown, vice president of policy at Taxpayers for Common Sense. "Everything they did, there's a simple way around it."

The ban on adding earmarks at the last minute can be circumvented by adding them before conference negotiations. "Based on what the Senate passed today, Duke Cunningham could come back to Congress today and rip off the government for tens of millions more and we wouldn't know it," says Mr. Ashdown.

But most members are convinced that the scandal won't touch them personally. The House version of the bill has been assigned to at least four committees - never a sign that a bill is on a fast track.

"It's very problematic because of the House," says Marshall Wittmann, a former conservative activist now with the Democratic Leadership Council. "The perks are too enticing for them to convert to the religion of reform."

While new House majority leader John Boehner (R) of Ohio doesn't personally favor the use of earmarks, or targeting funds to particular projects - and has taken heat over it in his home district - he is struggling to bring the GOP caucus along. "The Abramoff and Cunningham convictions aren't not going to fuel this any more. It's going to take future indictments," says Ashdown.

A closer look at the lobbying changes

The Senate voted 90-8 Wednesday to approve a number of changes to the way lobbying is reported and conducted. Supporters say the bill, which must be reconciled with a yet-to-be-determined House version, provides greater transparency to the legislative process. Critics say it lacks tough enforcement and falls short of the sweeping reforms first proposed in the wake of the Jack Abramoff scandal.

The Senate bill does:

Deny floor privileges to former members of Congress who are lobbyists.

• Prohibit lobbyists from giving meals or gifts to lawmakers.

• Require lawmakers to wait two years - not just one - before becoming lobbyists.

• Make it harder for members to add pet projects, called earmarks, to bills.

The Senate bill does not:

• Ban privately funded travel for members.

• Ban earmarks.

• Extend the meal-and-gift ban to companies that hire lobbyists.

• Create an Office of Public Integrity, an independent body that would investigate possible ethics violations by senators.

The Capitol - Washington, D.C. Lobbying Issues

Lobby Reform Lite

Editorial New York Times March 31, 2006
With the ghost of Jack Abramoff, the recently sentenced rogue lobbyist, wafting above the debate, the Senate has voted for a halfhearted package of reforms that would come nowhere near curing the easy money, quid pro quo culture that now bedevils the Capitol.

Facing voters' flagging confidence, the Senate chose to emphasize greater disclosure by lobbyists while rejecting such vital reforms as the creation of an independent office to investigate ethics abuses. The instinct to protect privileged clubbiness carried the day, most glaringly when the Senate spiked any idea of ending lawmakers' shameless use of the executive jets so eagerly offered by corporate officials bent on insider access.

Constituents who are grateful to see even the slightest sign of reform will be happy that the senators have voted to extend to two years the mandatory waiting time before a former lawmaker can strike it rich as a lobbyist. The current wait is one year. The bill also takes the first steps toward uncovering the stealthy world of grass-roots lobbying investments in lawmakers' home districts.

The Senate bill would make it harder — but by no means impossible — for members to quietly "earmark" pork projects in the budget at the behest of lobbyists. But even such an obvious reform as banning meals and gifts from lobbyists came equipped with a gaping loophole so the corporate employers of lobbyists could still pick up those checks.

The unfinished ethics agenda begins with the most critical issue of all: an end to the pervasive role of lobbyists as campaign finance brokers and money bundlers for incumbent politicians. It's reached the point where the people's representatives blatantly designate lobbyists to head their fund-raising teams. This moneyed back-scratching is the seedbed for scandal, but neither house shows any appetite to confront it.

Also ignored was a ban on lawmakers' junketeering at the expense of special-interest check writers. The Senate chose instead to require prior approval of private trips by its spineless ethics committee, a step that would hardly mitigate the cheesiness. Taxpayers, not corporate sponsors, should pay for global fact-finding.

For all its shortcomings, the Senate is a light-year ahead of the House. There, reform proposals have been parceled out to committees for indefinite marination as Republican leaders face rebellious members who want no part of real reform. The chances seem slim for two-house action that truly dents the clout of the booming lobbying industry.

Albany - New York State Lobbying Issues

Cuomo Calls for Total Ban on Gifts From Lobbyists

Andrew M. Cuomo, a candidate for New York attorney general, offered a series of proposals yesterday to tighten ethics rules in state government, including banning all gifts from lobbyists and prohibiting legislators from accepting honorariums for speeches.

Mr. Cuomo made the proposals in a speech at the School of Public Affairs at Baruch College. Mr. Cuomo, a housing secretary in the Clinton administration and the son of former Gov. Mario M. Cuomo, also proposed banning elected officials and other state executives from lobbying the government for three years after leaving office.

Ethics reform has been a prominent issue in recent elections. And Mr. Cuomo made it clear that he would push lawmakers to enact legislation to tighten some of those rules significantly. "If we're going to make state government work better for people, we must take dramatic steps to end the culture of corruption that permeates Albany," Mr. Cuomo said. "This isn't a pie-in-the-sky proposal. These are achievable measures that enjoy broad support among reformers across our state."

Lobbyist Abramoff sentenced to five years, 10 months in fraud case
The Associated Press MARCH 29, 2006

MIAMI Disgraced former lobbyist Jack Abramoff and a business partner were sentenced Wednesday to five years and 10 months in federal prison, the minimum they faced for fraud related to their 2000 purchase of the SunCruz Casinos gambling fleet.

Abramoff and Adam Kidan both pleaded guilty to conspiracy and wire fraud, but they will not have to report to prison immediately.

The judge postponed their reporting date for at least 90 days so the two can continue cooperating in a Washington corruption investigation and a Florida probe into the killing of former SunCruz owner Konstantinos Boulis. Both deny roles in the killing. Abramoff pleaded guilty in connection with the corruption probe but has yet to be sentenced.

In court Wednesday, Abramoff said the fraud case was "incredibly painful" for himself, his family and his friends.

"In the past two years I have started the process of becoming a new man," he said.

Under their plea agreement, both men had faced a sentence of between five years, 10 months, and seven years, three months in federal prison. U.S. District Judge Paul C. Huck also ordered them Wednesday to pay restitution of more than $21 million (€17.4 million).

Abramoff and Kidan admitted concocting a fake $23 million (€19 million) wire transfer to make it appear they had made a large cash contribution to the $147.5 million (€122.1 million) purchase of SunCruz Casinos. Based on that fake transfer, lenders provided the pair with $60 million (€49.7 million) in financing.

The same week Abramoff pleaded guilty to the SunCruz fraud, he entered guilty pleas to three federal charges as part of a wide-ranging corruption probe that could involve up to 20 members of Congress and aides, including former Republican House Majority Leader Tom DeLay.

In addition to assisting in that investigation, Abramoff, 47, and Kidan, 41, are expected to give statements in the investigation into the Feb. 6, 2001, slaying of Boulis, who was gunned down at the wheel of his car amid a power struggle over the gambling fleet. Three men face murder charges, including one who worked for Kidan as a consultant at SunCruz and who allegedly has ties to New York's Gambino crime family.

Both Abramoff and Kidan have repeatedly denied any role in or knowledge of the Boulis murder. But prosecutors say Kidan has not been ruled out as a suspect and defense attorneys say Abramoff could provide critical inside information about the dispute with Boulis, who also founded the Miami Subs restaurant chain.

Ultimately, cooperation in those investigations could reduce Abramoff's and Kidan's sentences.

Abramoff, who was wearing a tan baseball-style cap, did not speak to reporters as he and his lawyers left court after the sentencing.

Before the hearing Wednesday, more than 260 people - including rabbis, military officers and even a professional hockey referee - wrote letters on the men's behalf asking the judge for leniency.

The letters, obtained by The Associated Press, put a new spin on the foibles and crimes of a man who became the face of Washington's latest corruption scandal.

"Jack is a good person, who in his quest to be successful, lost sight of the rules," National Hockey League referee Dave Jackson wrote, describing the time Abramoff brought 14 youngsters to his dressing room before a game.

Kidan, in his own letter to the judge, said he knew the SunCruz deal was wrong but said he "was very caught up in the fast paced world of my partner and the high profile that came along with it." He added, "I am not the horrible person that the media has written about."

Associated Press writer John Solomon in Washington contributed to this report.

Lobbying Reform Stumbles

Congress' push for tougher ethics rules is already dying down

By PERRY BACON JR./WASHINGTON Thursday, Feb. 09, 2006 

A month ago, Jack Abramoff had just been indicted, and the talk all over Capitol Hill was about how Congress should change its rules, stopping lobbyists from getting too close to lawmakers, and vice-versa. But even then, there were signs that lobbying and ethics reforms might be yet another Washington fad that would soon pass. Republican Roy Blunt, then running for the post of House Majority Leader, defended earmarks—money doled out for specific projects in congressional districts. And House Speaker Dennis Hastert, unable to blame the powerless Democrats for the growth in earmarks, found the next best scapegoat, saying the projects grew because "the Senate plays appropriation games."

And now, lo and behold, the reform talk has died down. While House Republicans did push through a ban on former members lobbying in the House gym last week, GOP members also suggested Hastert had overreacted to the Abramoff scandal. "Some of the proposals out there were just not necessary," said one House leadership aide. The new management in the House agrees. Two days before his surprising election as House Majority Leader, Ohio Republican John Boehner had suggested one of Hastert's ideas, banning all privately funded travel, was "childish". Since then Boehner has further distanced himself from the reform ideas, suggesting that current laws have worked in catching violations of ethics rules and an independent office of public integrity to check for abuses is unnecessary. "Sunlight is the best disinfectant," Boehner said on Meet the Press last weekend.

Boehner isn't alone in this view. A National Journal poll of 35 Republicans in the House and Senate found only 37% thought Congress should restrict lobbyists' fundraising for members, while 63% disagree. And when the 231 House members get together for a retreat that lasts from Thursday to Saturday in Cambridge, Maryland, House leaders aren't expected to push the issue strongly.

But House members aren't the only problem. Perhaps the two most popular members of the Senate and their respective party's' leaders on ethics and lobbying reform, Barack Obama and John McCain, were engaged earlier this week in a highly personal tiff on the issue. Obama, being pushed by Senate Democratic leaders to use the lobbying reform issue to help attack the GOP as elections loom in November, last week sent a letter to McCain, saying Democrats would pursue their own ethics bill rather than joining a bill created by McCain's bipartisan task force. In a letter this week, the Arizona Senator blasted Obama. "I’m embarrassed to admit that after all these years in politics," McCain wrote, "I failed to interpret your previous assurances as typical rhetorical gloss routinely used in politics to make self-interested partisan posturing appear more noble." At a Senate hearing yesterday, Obama and McCain put aside their differences to push for lobbying reform proposals. McCain's bill would allow the Senate to vote to eliminate earmarks out of bills.

Despite these distractions, the House and Senate seem likely to eventually pass some limited changes: greater transparency of which members of Congress have put an earmark into a bill, more disclosure of gifts and contacts of lobbyists with lawmakers, and stricter rules on former congressional staffers or members taking lobbying jobs. But the more dramatic reforms being discussed immediately post-Abramoff, like stopping lawmakers from using corporate jets and "leadership PACs"—which aspiring congressional leaders use to dole out money to and curry favor with other members, and often have lobbyists serving as treasurers—now have a much smaller chance of passing.

Copyright © 2006 Time Inc. All rights reserved.

How to Reform Lobbying

Thursday, February 9, 2006; A22

THERE'S NOT a lot of suspense about whether Congress will pass lobbying reform this year. But what kind of reform -- cosmetic or real? Some of the initial signals, particularly from the new House majority leader, Rep. John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), are not promising. As we've said, any lobbying reform must be accompanied by changes in how the House governs itself; even so, that will not produce a perfect system by any means. But changing the rules also is crucial, and there are right and wrong ways to go about that. Here are right ways on several components under debate:

· Meals, entertainment and gifts. The question here is whether to impose an outright ban on lawmakers and their staff accepting gifts, meals and entertainment from lobbyists or to couple existing limits ($50 per gift, $100 from any single source per year) with increased disclosure (reporting all gifts worth more than $20), more honest pricing (no more skybox tickets valued at $49.99) and stronger enforcement.

We can't get too worked up about a lobbyist picking up lunch tabs, as long as that is disclosed. But there's no excuse for taking freebies such as sports tickets. And it's important that the rules crack down on the really valuable benefits that private interests now provide -- events such as convention parties honoring key lawmakers, lobbyist-funded holiday parties or cut-rate use of corporate aircraft. Any plan that doesn't end those real perks of office will have fallen short. The resistance to grounding corporate flight is nothing short of outrageous.

· Travel. The issue is whether all private travel should be banned or whether the travel rules should be tightened. We would favor significant tightening over an absolute ban, if that can be feasibly achieved.

The most sensible rule would eliminate travel paid for not only by lobbyists but also by companies and other entities that engage in lobbying activities. But it would permit privately funded travel -- for example, by foundations such as the Aspen Institute -- that isn't paid for, directly or indirectly, by entities that lobby. That rule, combined with detailed disclosure of travel itineraries, expenses, funding and companions, would eliminate abuses without choking off travel that provides a valuable education for lawmakers and their staffers.

· Disclosure. More detailed, timely disclosure is critical to the success of any lobbying reform. Under existing rules, lobbyists are required to report hardly any information -- they can explain simply that they lobbied the House on a particular bill or issue -- and do so only twice a year.

They should be required to detail, at least quarterly, information on meals or other gifts; political contributions; fundraisers hosted; contributions to charities controlled or financed by members, or that they solicit; and previous government employment. More important, lobbyists should report what congressional or executive branch offices they contacted, and with whom they spoke.

A key word in the preceding sentence is "executive." As the Jack Abramoff scandal shows, lobbying executive branch departments can be as profitable as lobbying Congress; there is public interest in shining a light on both. As a subset of this category, any reform should require disclosure of donations to presidential libraries. That a sitting president can raise money for his library in undisclosed and unlimited amounts from any source -- corporations, foreign interests, individuals seeking pardons -- is an invitation to scandal.

The most telling disclosure of all would be to require lobbyists to report how much money they raised for those they lobby. Thus far, not surprisingly, no proposal would take that illuminating step. © 2006 The Washington Post Company

37,000? 39,402? 11,500?
Just How Many Lobbyists Are There in Washington, Anyway?

Washington Post - United States By Debra Mayberry
Sunday, January 29, 2006; B03

Give yourself a point for the correct answer to this question: What do Tom Bevill, Lloyd Meeds and Tillie Fowler have in common? (a) They are all former members of Congress (b) They are all registered lobbyists (c) They are all dead.

The answer is all of the above. I offer this little quiz as a way of highlighting a point that has caught my attention over the past several months as the media have focused increasing attention on lobbying and tried to quantify the registered lobbyists who currently work the halls of Congress.

On Jan. 19, CNN reported that there are "more than 37,000 registered lobbyists." The Christian Science Monitor cited "39,402" registered lobbyists on Jan. 20. The Seattle Times has "32,890" in a recent article. USA Today is more conservative, reporting "more than 32,000" lobbyists. In last Wednesday's Senate hearing on lobbying reform, Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) referred to "more than 30,000 lobbyists" in his remarks. The Senate Office of Public Records (SOPR), the agency responsible for receiving lobbyist registrations and publishing them online, reports 32,890 registered lobbyists as of Sept. 30, 2005.

As the publisher of the directory Washington Representatives and the Web site , I have a responsibility to my customers to present accurate and up-to-date information. But the number of actively registered lobbyists that we publish hovers around just 11,500.

How could our count be so different from the widely reported totals? I had to find out. And that's where my quiz comes in.

I have no idea where some of the media's numbers come from. But I took a closer look at the figure that SOPR presents and compared it with our data. The difference in our numbers comes from the fact that we serve different constituencies and apply different methodologies in how we present the data. The Senate Office of Public Records provides a historical record of registered lobbyists. We provide a current record of active lobbyists. It is no wonder that the data look so different.

Let me make it clear that SOPR does a terrific job. We, and many others, rely on its raw data for our publications. Its staff does an exceptional job of making lobby registrations available to the public, and its figure accurately reflects the number of lobbyists who have registered since 1998.

But errors creep into the system in a variety of ways. Often, individual lobbyists register with SOPR under more than one name. For example, George F. (Trey) Barnes III appears in the SOPR database as G. Furman (Trey) Barnes, G. Furman Barnes III, George F. Barnes, George F. Barnes III and Trey Barnes. Jack Abramoff appears twice -- as Jack Abramoff and Jack A. Abramoff. Should we count them as eight lobbyists, or just two?

Termination reports are another issue. ("Termination" is when a lobbyist files a report stating that he or she is no longer lobbying on behalf of a client.) First of all, we've found that many lobbyists don't file a termination report with SOPR when they change careers, retire or die. Second, SOPR does not delete the names of lobbyists who file termination reports, and for historical purposes, everyone agrees that the old records should be retained. But there needs to be clarity about the number of individuals who are currently registered as lobbyists vs. a historical record about everyone who ever was registered to lobby.

Because our customers want data on lobbyists currently in the workforce, we weed out lobbyists who have terminated relationships with clients. We make calls to confirm information when we see six different versions of the same name. In fact, we update our database every day as we receive information, and we contact both lobbyists and clients to ensure accuracy. Do we make mistakes? You bet we do. Even with our constant checking and follow-up, errors still find their way into our data. But based on our extensive research, we believe that the number of active lobbyists in Washington is nowhere close to the widely reported totals.

Clearly, journalists, members of Congress, the lobbying industry and many others believe that the number of registered lobbyists is important. But if the number being tossed around includes lobbyists who are retired, dead or listed under multiple names, then the scope and scale of the lobbying industry is misunderstood.

I don't have a dog in the reform fight; I simply run a small company that works to present the best possible data on lobbying. If part of the reform effort were to include a provision for SOPR to retain their valuable historical information and to present current lobbying workforce data, the debates about lobbying would be more well-informed. Although such a provision might put my company out of business, I know that policymakers need accurate information about the size, scope and composition of the lobbying industry in Washington. It's a risk I'm willing to take.


Debra Mayberry is president of Columbia Books Inc., publisher of several directories listing professionals, including lobbyists and association executives.

Senators Say Ethics Beyond Lobbying Reform

Senators Say Ethics Issue Goes Beyond Lobbying Reform, Extends to Own Behavior


The Associated Press

WASHINGTON - Members of Congress must look at their own behavior as well as lobbyists' if they are to regain the trust of the American public, senators said Wednesday.

At the same time, lobbyists and those who sponsor trips for lawmakers warned against overreacting to the headlines on the influence peddling activities of Jack Abramoff. In particular, they said, banning all privately funded travel could isolate lawmakers from the knowledge they need to write law.

What's clear, said Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, chair of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, is that Congress can't tackle the big issues facing the nation without the trust of the public. "And the public's trust in Congress is perilously low."

"Frankly, the status quo stinks and cries out for us to clear the air," Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, the committee's top Democrat, said at the first hearing following the Abramoff lobbying scandal.

Leaders from both parties in both chambers have promoted measures to tighten rules and laws governing lawmaker contacts with lobbyists. There are several common themes: restricting or banning the giving of gifts to lawmakers, prohibiting lobbyists from arranging or funding trips, lengthening the time between when a lawmaker leaves office and takes a job as a lobbyist and requiring greater disclosure of lobbyist activities.

But speakers at the hearing also said members of Congress must look at how they do business and get elected, larger issues that could complicate quick passage of the first lobbying reform bill in a decade.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., co-sponsor of one of the major lobbying bills, said Congress must tackle the problem of earmarks, special interest projects that get inserted in larger pieces of legislation, often with the help of lobbyists. "We're not going to fix this system until we fix the earmarks," he said. "It's disgraceful, this process."

Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., who is preparing legislation at the behest of the Senate GOP leadership, said his bill might also look at spending by tax-exempt partisan groups known as 527s, a touchy subject because Democrats relied heavily on such groups in the last election.

Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., also noted, in a broader sense, that Congress must look at how lawmakers finance their political campaigns. "Unless and until we address this in an honest fashion, we are carping on trifles here."

In the House on Wednesday, Democrats David Obey of Wisconsin and Barney Frank of Massachusetts said they would introduce legislation to eliminate all private money for House elections, turning instead to public financing. "The problem with politics is more fundamental than meals or trips with lobbyists," Obey said in a statement.

Taking a different approach, Sens. Norm Coleman, R-Minn., Wayne Allard, R-Colo., and Ben Nelson, D-Neb., unveiled a plan to create an independent commission, similar to the 9/11 Commission, to recommend ethics reforms. "What is at stake here is clearly the credibility of the institution," Coleman said at the hearing.

But Paul Miller, president of the American League of Lobbyists, urged Congress not to respond to the actions of a "few unscrupulous operatives" by impeding the rights of citizens, including lobbyists, to petition Congress and keep members of Congress informed.

John Engler, former governor of Michigan and current head of the National Association of Manufacturers, told the panel that the current system was working, noting that a lobbyist was going to jail and a member of Congress was going to be sentenced. He was apparently referring to Abramoff and former Rep. Duke Cunningham, R-Calif., who recently pleaded guilty to bribery.

"Whatever occurs, I think it is imperative that you do not overreact," he said.

Dick Clark, a former senator from Iowa who established the Aspen Institute program for Congress, said it was right for Congress to reject lobbyist involvement in trips. But a total ban on privately funded travel "would be a disservice to members of Congress," he said.

Aspen arranges seminars both inside the country and around the world where members of Congress are required to attend conferences that last six hours a day over four days. It does not pay for recreational activities.

"Foreign travel is essential in an era of globalization," he said. "Insularity is not an option for the world's only superpower."

McCain, Obama settle feud over lobbying reform
Thu Feb 9, 2006 7:21 AM ET

By Andy Sullivan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama patched up a feud and pledged on Wednesday to work together to enact new lobbying limits in the wake of the Jack Abramoff influence-peddling scandal.

The Arizona Republican and the Illinois Democrat, who exchanged sharply worded letters this week, told the Senate Rules Committee they both want to reconcile competing measures to reform the pervasive Washington practice of plying lawmakers with donations and favors to try to influence legislation.

"Senator Obama and I are moving on and are continuing to work together and I value his input," said McCain.

Obama put his arm around McCain for the benefit of photographers, and called McCain his "pen pal."

McCain had accused Obama of "partisan posturing" after Obama urged him to consider a reform bill backed by nearly all Senate Democrats instead of an approach suggested by the Senate Majority Leader, Tennessee Republican Bill Frist.

Among the proposed reforms is one that would limit the ability of lawmakers to secretly insert spending measures at the end of the legislative process.

Washington's lucrative lobbying industry has come under scrutiny in recent months since the Abramoff scandal ensnared several prominent Republicans, including former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas.

Abramoff pleaded guilty last month to plying unnamed lawmakers with gifts and travel junkets to win influence for his clients.


The House of Representatives has already changed its rules to ban former members of Congress who become registered lobbyists from its chamber and gym, though Democrats say that will have little effect.

Both McCain's bill and the one backed by Obama would require greater disclosure of lobbying activities and double the "cooling off" period to two years before former members of congress can lobby their colleagues.

The Democratic bill would also ban gifts from lobbyists and prohibit privately funded travel by members of Congress.

Wisconsin Democratic Sen. Russell Feingold said lawmakers should also be required to pay for their own meals.

"If you really want to have dinner with a lobbyist, no one is saying that you can't. Just take out your credit card and pay your own way," he said.

A ban on meals would be "going off the total deep end," countered Mississippi Republican Sen. Trent Lott, who chairs the Rules Committee. "We ought to ban gifts, but the meals thing is going to far."

Several lawmakers said that the practice of inserting last-minute "earmarks" into massive spending bills needs to be brought under control. Documents show that Abramoff tried to use this tactic to win favors for his Indian tribe clients.

Obama suggested that an independent committee made up of retired judges and ex-lawmakers should ensure that the new rules are enforced.

"We can pass all the new ethics in the world but if we don't establish a body that can monitor and enforce those rules it will be very easy to break them," he said.

Lott said his committee will vote on reform legislation in the last week of February.

Feb. 8, 2006, 9:20PM
Lobbying reform turning into an uphill battle on the Hill
•As 2 senators try to bridge their rift over issue, House warns of resistance

WASHINGTON - Lobbying reform, which looked like a sure thing after kingpin lobbyist Jack Abramoff pleaded guilty to corruption charges, is proving more difficult than expected.

Two high-profile senators on Wednesday tried to paper over their dispute on their issue, and GOP House members braced for an airing of their sharp differences at a three-day retreat that begins today.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., testified before a Senate panel that they were committed to working together on reform legislation despite a recent, testy exchange of letters in which McCain accused Obama of injecting partisanship into the issue.

McCain, a potential 2008 presidential candidate, told the rules committee that he valued Obama's efforts to broker a bipartisan agreement.

McCain has proposed making it easier for senators to challenge earmarks, which are projects that lawmakers tack onto spending bills, sometimes at the behest of lobbyists.

Jokingly referring to McCain as his "pen pal," Obama, a freshman and rising star in the Democratic Party, said he not only wanted more scrutiny of earmarks but also to create an independent commission to police the activities of lawmakers and lobbyists.

Obama later said McCain had misunderstood his criticism of a bipartisan lobbying reform task force spearheaded by the Arizona senator.

Obama said his criticism was aimed at Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist's remarks that the task force should study the issue; Obama said the matter needed action, not just talk.

But even as the senators pressed their case for changing the way Congress does business, other lawmakers warned they were meeting resistance from many of their colleagues, particularly to a plan to ban privately funded travel by lawmakers.

Immediately after federal prosecutors reached a plea bargain with Abramoff, who may implicate some lawmakers, congressional leaders rushed to offer lobbying reform plans.

But Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., a reform advocate, said that in the past two weeks, "we are hearing the sound of furious back-peddling in the corridors of power."

In the House, new Majority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, said he has doubts about barring private groups from paying for congressional trips.

The ban is among several measures proposed by House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., last month.

Boehner was elected to replace Rep. Tom DeLay, R-Sugar Land, whom many Republicans feared had become a political liability because of his close ties to Abramoff.

But Boehner also has links to lobbyists.

He rents an apartment in Washington from a lobbyist whose clients have an interest in legislation overseen by the Education and Workforce Committee, which Boehner had recently chaired, the Washington Post reported Wednesday.

Lobbying reform is expected to be the major topic for House Republicans during their retreat on Maryland's eastern shore, said Jo Maney, a spokeswoman for Rep. David Dreier, R-Calif., who was directed by Hastert to devise lobbying legislation.

The original plan was for the lobbying bill to go to the House floor by March, but no longer. More lawmakers must weigh in first, Maney said.

"Everybody's got opinions," she remarked.

Lobbying Against Lobby Reform
Matthew E. Berger
JTA Wire Service

FEBRUARY 09, 2006
Washington, D.C.

As plans for lobbying reform trickle down from both political parties in the U.S. Congress, a unified American Jewish establishment is finding itself in an increasingly precarious position.

Jewish groups are already quietly fighting some of the reform proposals, especially the proposed ban on foreign travel paid for by lobbyists, which could prevent groups from sending lawmakers to Israel.

But picking this fight could pit Jewish groups against many of the congressional leaders they often try to court.

The lobbying reform issue may become one of the most important issues of the year for Jewish lobbyists, say community activists.

"The entire Jewish community is mobilized," said William Daroff, vice president for public policy of the United Jewish Communities, the umbrella of the North American federation movement. "There is unanimity of opinion on the value of these trips from a public policy position."

Despite their efforts at quiet diplomacy, the Jewish voice is clearly being heard.

Around Capitol Hill, the debate over foreign travel for lawmakers is being called the "AIPAC question," sources said, noting the reference to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the pro-Israel lobby.

With congressional Republicans and Democrats each vying to be seen as the strongest on reform, advocates of more moderate lobbying reforms are not being well received in the halls of Congress.

Jewish officials say lawmakers are telling them that the proposals they are seeing now will change, and the end result will likely be legislation that would not restrict all travel.

"Everybody says, 'You probably won't be happy with where the debate starts, but we pledge you'll be happy with where the debate ends,' " said one Jewish official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. "Neither side wants to be seen as soft on ethics and neither wants to be out-flanked by the other."

Some Democrats want to capitalize on the current attention to the issue, thinking that presenting a tough bill will help them in the midterm elections in November.

Republicans, meanwhile, are hoping quick reforms will neutralize the bad press they have received in the wake of the Jack Abramoff scandal.

Despite their intense opposition, Jewish groups so far are conducting a quiet campaign, relying on prominent lay leaders and professionals to speak privately to lawmakers.

They are trying to make the case that they need to be able to take members of Congress to Israel to help foster strong support for the Jewish state. They say it is also important to allow lawmakers to travel to other important international locales, like Sudan, and to communities around the United States, to meet with Jewish audiences and see how federal funds are spent.

Jewish organizational leaders have held a series of conference calls in the past few weeks, discussing tactics for opposing the travel ban.

They are focusing on what they're calling "smart reform," advocating for changes to lobbying rules, but against a ban on paying for congressional travel.

Specifically, they are seeking compromises that would allow non-profit groups to continue paying for educational travel.

"We're not talking about a public campaign," said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, which organized a call last week. "We're all sensitive to the implications and we're in favor of reform."

A number of Jewish groups, including AIPAC, joined a wide range of non-governmental organizations in a letter this week opposing the travel ban, authored by the Institute on Religion and Public Policy.

"If NGOs are barred from funding educational travel by members and staff, such travel will be feasible only with taxpayer funds or at personal expense," said the letter, sent to House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.).

"If members must travel only at their own expense, the toll of the traveling cost will inevitably lead to minimal travel."

Meanwhile, religious groups are seeking to be exempted from any new lobbying regulations, just as they are exempted from current lobbying restrictions. The Lobbying Disclosure Act of 1995, which set the rules lawmakers currently operate under, allows "churches" to participate in the political process without registering as official lobbies.

A coalition of religious organizations, led by Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism, is pressuring lawmakers to continue that practice, sources said.

Saperstein declined to comment.

Crafting a strategy of opposition to the lobbying reforms has been complicated by the numerous plans in the works. Some propose a total ban on privately funded lawmaker travel, others would ban only travel paid for by lobbyists or that includes lobbyists on the trip and still others would ban even separate educational travel programs, like the one AIPAC has established.

AIPAC currently brings registered lobbyists on its trips, a spokesman said. Last year, separate trips were led by Reps. Tom DeLay (R-Texas), then the House majority leader, and Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), the minority whip.

Democratic aides tried to assure Jewish activists that some travel would be allowed, but have felt pressure in recent weeks to keep pace with the Republican proposal. "They are sympathetic to our concerns, but there is a sense they have to do something about this, and drawing those kinds of lines is not easy to do," said Richard Foltin, legislative director of the American Jewish Committee.

He noted that Abramoff used non-profit groups for some of his trips, which has complicated the line between legitimate and illegitimate sponsors of travel.

Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.), one of two Republican Jews in the Senate, asked about AIPAC travel in a hearing on lobbying reform before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee on Jan. 25.

"AIPAC does a service in having members go to Israel, when you get to meet with leaders," Coleman said. "That would be bad -- that would be prohibited if we take the approach that's been articulated here. So I don't think that helps us be better senators. "

Observers believe there is likely to be a middle ground, because congressmen want to be able to travel, especially on so-called fact-finding trips.

"If you still allow privately funded travel, but you don't allow the payment of such travel by registered lobbyists, there will be a way for groups to take members abroad for educational purposes," said one congressional official, who asked not to be identified.

"My sense is that groups like AIPAC can figure out a way to put a sign ificant firewall around their educational programs."

McCain Vs. Obama on lobbying reform
An exchange of letters between senators heats up ethics reform efforts

MSNBC Updated: 1:57 p.m. ET Feb. 8, 2006

The biggest political story in Washington is the battle between Senators John McCain and Barack Obama.  In a blistering letter, Senator McCain accused Obama of, quote, “using the ethics reform issue for self-interested partisan posturing” and apologized for thinking Obama was sincere. 

This is the first time any prominent national politician has publicly criticized superstar Obama.  Why did Senator McCain go after the freshman senator? 

Senator McCain joins Chris Matthews to explain.

CHRIS MATTHEWS, HOST 'HARDBALL': What was your original relationship with Senator Obama on Congressional reform? 

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN ®, ARIZONA:  Well, my relationship was fine with him.  We had a difference of viewpoint because he sent me a letter that basically said that, as I read it, we weren‘t going to work together.

And he‘d been at a meeting with me and the chairman and ranking member, Senator Collins, Senator Lieberman, as we worked towards lobbying reform, which we have to do.  And then I received a letter that basically said that he wasn‘t going to do that.  Actually, I didn‘t receive the letter before I got pressured for it and so I responded with a little straight talk. 

MATTHEWS:  OK, let me ask you about the original—it seems to me, looking at the exchange of letters between yourself and Senator Obama, the Democratic senator for Illinois, that you initially put together a bipartisan effort and then he withdrew from the deal and went back and said and told you in no uncertain terms, I‘m not dealing with you anymore in a bipartisan fashion, I‘m going off and going to do this as a Democrat. 

MCCAIN:  Well, I had a conversation with Senator Obama and he said that was not his intention, but the way I read the letter, after I heard from the press that it was on his way, that indeed that that was the case, including touting Senator Reid‘s proposal, which has no Republican sponsors and will not, and we all know that we have to work together.  And so I responded and Senator Obama and I had a conversation, and we agreed to move on. 

MATTHEWS:  Do you stand by your letter back to Senator Obama? 

MCCAIN:  Sure. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, let‘s take a look at it because I think that people will learn a lot from this about—I know you‘re being nice now, but the way in which Obama treated you here.  The first line of the letter—I thought we were going to see this on the prompter here?

“I‘d like to apologize to you for assuming that your private assurances to me regarding your desire to cooperate and our efforts to negotiate bipartisan lobbying reform legislation were sincere.”  You‘re basically saying what here?

MCCAIN:  I‘m saying that I believe that his efforts were sincere at the time.  The letter that I received contradicted that, at least my reading of it, and I don‘t know how you read it any other way, and so therefore I—that‘s exactly what I said.  It was a little straight talk, Chris. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, I concluded—there‘s more here.  “I concluded your professed concern for the institution and the public interest was genuine and admirable.  Thank you for disabusing me of such notions.”  You‘re saying to the guy I thought you were a gentleman and a civil servant and now you‘re obviously not. 

MCCAIN:  Well, I thought it was pretty well written, didn‘t you? 

MATTHEWS:  I think it was tough. Ken Mehlman, the chairman of your party, has gone after Hillary Clinton for being angry, as if there‘s something wrong with it.  This is a letter of a very sophisticated, angry senator.  What‘s wrong with being angry? 

MCCAIN:  I‘m not angry. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, this letter is brilliantly angry. 

MCCAIN:  Well, I wasn‘t angry when I wrote it.  Look, I wrote the letter because I was very disappointed in the letter that I received from Senator Obama, and was told to me by the press. 

Look, this is a pressing issue.  We have to move forward in a bipartisan fashion.  You know and I know that if—the only way you resolve one of these issues is in a bipartisan fashion, and so that‘s why I felt strongly about it. 

In the room where Senator Collins, the chairperson of the Oversight Committee, and Senator Lieberman—and we had all agreed to move forward with her committee as quickly as possible.  And there was reference in the letter to a task force, that frankly we had committed to moving forward with the committee process. 

MATTHEWS:  You know, I worked on the Hill for many years.  I used to notice there was a big difference between the Senate and the House of Representatives.  The Senate was bipartisan by its nature.  It was people that found common ground where they could and didn‘t waste a lot of time. 

The House of Representatives was mainly about taking party positions and seeing who won.  Do you think that Obama is behaving like a House member here rather than a senator? 

MCCAIN:  I hope not.  I hope that he made a mistake and that we can move forward.  And I continue to work with Joe Lieberman and many other senators, because they realize that we‘ve got to get work done on a bipartisan basis.  Have times changed?  Of course they have changed, and for the worse. 

MATTHEWS:  OK, we‘re hoping to get Senator Obama to come on and talk about how you‘re going to work together.  But are you—have any confidence now that he will join your bipartisan effort? 

MCCAIN:  Well, I hope so.  We have agreed to move forward and that‘s what‘s important at this point, and we‘ve probably provided enough entertainment for a while. 

MATTHEWS:  That letter that you sent, and we were beginning—I‘m not going to quote any further from it.  I think we caught the gist or tone of it.  Senator, do you stand by this letter? 

MCCAIN:  Sure. 

[McCain and Obama letters below]

McCain's Letter to Obama
February 6, 2006
The Honorable Barack Obama
United States Senate
Washington, DC 20510

Dear Senator Obama:

I would like to apologize to you for assuming that your private assurances to me regarding your desire to cooperate in our efforts to negotiate bipartisan lobbying reform legislation were sincere. When you approached me and insisted that despite your leadership’s preference to use the issue to gain a political advantage in the 2006 elections, you were personally committed to achieving a result that would reflect credit on the entire Senate and offer the country a better example of political leadership, I concluded your professed concern for the institution and the public interest was genuine and admirable. Thank you for disabusing me of such notions with your letter to me dated February 2, 2006, which explained your decision to withdraw from our bipartisan discussions. I’m embarrassed to admit that after all these years in politics I failed to interpret your previous assurances as typical rhetorical gloss routinely used in politics to make self-interested partisan posturing appear more noble. Again, sorry for the confusion, but please be assured I won’t make the same mistake again.

As you know, the Majority Leader has asked Chairman Collins to hold hearings and mark up a bill for floor consideration in early March. I fully support such timely action and I am confident that, together with Senator Lieberman, the Committee on Governmental Affairs will report out a meaningful, bipartisan bill.

You commented in your letter about my “interest in creating a task force to further study” this issue, as if to suggest I support delaying the consideration of much-needed reforms rather than allowing the committees of jurisdiction to hold hearings on the matter. Nothing could be further from the truth. The timely findings of a bipartisan working group could be very helpful to the committee in formulating legislation that will be reported to the full Senate. Since you are new to the Senate, you may not be aware of the fact that I have always supported fully the regular committee and legislative process in the Senate, and routinely urge Committee Chairmen to hold hearings on important issues. In fact, I urged Senator Collins to schedule a hearing upon the Senate’s return in January.

Furthermore, I have consistently maintained that any lobbying reform proposal be bipartisan. The bill Senators Joe Lieberman and Bill Nelson and I have introduced is evidence of that commitment as is my insistence that members of both parties be included in meetings to develop the legislation that will ultimately be considered on the Senate floor. As I explained in a recent letter to Senator Reid, and have publicly said many times, the American people do not see this as just a Republican problem or just a Democratic problem. They see it as yet another run-of-the-mill Washington scandal, and they expect it will generate just another round of partisan gamesmanship and posturing. Senator Lieberman and I, and many other members of this body, hope to exceed the public’s low expectations. We view this as an opportunity to bring transparency and accountability to the Congress, and, most importantly, to show the public that both parties will work together to address our failings.

As I noted, I initially believed you shared that goal. But I understand how important the opportunity to lead your party’s effort to exploit this issue must seem to a freshman Senator, and I hold no hard feelings over your earlier disingenuousness. Again, I have been around long enough to appreciate that in politics the public interest isn’t always a priority for every one of us. Good luck to you, Senator.

John McCain
United States Senate

Obama's letter to McCain
February 6, 2006
The Honorable John McCain
United States Senate
241 Russell Senate Office Building
Washington, DC 20510

Dear John:

During my short time in the U.S. Senate, one of the aspects about this institution that I have come to value most is the collegiality and the willingness to put aside partisan differences to work on issues that help the American people. It was in this spirit that I approached you to work on ethics reform, and it was in this spirit that I agreed to attend your bipartisan meeting last week. I appreciated then - and still do appreciate - your willingness to reach out to me and several other Democrats.

For this reason, I am puzzled by your response to my recent letter. Last Wednesday morning, you called to invite me to your meeting that afternoon. I changed my schedule so I could attend the meeting. Afterwards, you thanked me several times for attending the meeting, and we left pledging to work together.

As you will recall, I told everyone present at the meeting that my caucus insisted that the consideration of any ethics reform proposal go through the regular committee process. You didn't indicate any opposition to this position at the time, and I wrote the letter to reiterate this point, as well as the fact that I thought S. 2180 should be the basis for a bipartisan solution

I confess that I have no idea what has prompted your response. But let me assure you that I am not interested in typical partisan rhetoric or posturing. The fact that you have now questioned my sincerity and my desire to put aside politics for the public interest is regrettable but does not in any way diminish my deep respect for you nor my willingness to find a bipartisan solution to this problem.

Barack Obama
United States Senator

Watch 'Hardball' each night at 5 and 7 p.m. ET on MSNBC. 

© 2006 MSNBC Interactive

Boehner Suggests New Tack on Lobbying
Emphasis Would Be on Disclosure

By Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 4, 2006

Majority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) has begun shifting his party toward an alternative lobbying reform package that stresses disclosure of lobbying contacts rather than the virtual ban on gifts and privately funded trips proposed last month by House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.).

In an interview yesterday, Boehner emphasized that he has no plan to change lobbying rules and will not draft one until he can reach a broad consensus with House Republicans, possibly at a retreat on Maryland's Eastern Shore next week. But he was quick to say the proposals that Hastert and House Rules Committee Chairman David Dreier (R-Calif.) put forward are not the Republican Conference's plan.

"We don't have a package," he said. "There are some ideas that the speaker and Mr. Dreier have put out. They are very good ideas. I know Mr. Dreier is working in a bipartisan way to refine those proposals, and until then it's a work in progress."

The lobbying plan is probably the first hurdle Boehner faces as he seeks to bring together a fractured Republican Conference and cope with a growing congressional corruption scandal. As a sign of the abrupt shift in leadership since Boehner was elected Thursday to succeed indicted Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) as majority leader, House leadership aides who helped draft Hastert's initial response said it will have to be pulled back.

"This is something we refer to as a false start," a senior aide said, acknowledging that Hastert and other leaders had backed the Republicans into a no-win situation. The leaders can either push forward with a plan most Republicans oppose, or they can scrap it and read that they backed off the toughest reform proposals.

"This is the problem the rank and file has with the leadership," the aide said. "They feel they don't get listened to. They get these knee-jerk reactions they don't like, but now that it's been rolled out, if we don't do it, we'll get criticism all over again. That makes them even angrier because they see it as self-inflicted."

Boehner's upset victory over acting Majority Leader Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) sprang in large part from Republicans' fears that they had to distance themselves from DeLay's leadership if they are to survive the midterm elections in November. The corruption scandals have already led Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R-Calif.) to plead guilty to bribery charges and resign, forced Rep. Robert W. Ney (R-Ohio) to give up his committee chairmanship, and snared a guilty plea from former lobbyist Jack Abramoff -- and Republicans are scared.

In the closed-door electoral conclave Thursday, Rep. Mark Edward Souder (R-Ind.) summed up that trepidation when first he told the conference he feared retribution for what he was about to say, then continued: "Duke Cunningham, Jack Abramoff, and the ongoing and disgusting saga of abuse of power and public trust are not just made up by the Democrats," according to a transcript of the speech released by Rep. John Shadegg (R-Ariz.). "Our entire philosophy is at risk because the American people, and even a large percentage of our own supporters think we have been corrupted."

That is not how Blunt saw it.

"The five or six people that will talk to the media about what bad shape we're in are not reflective of 225 of their colleagues," Blunt told the Associated Press yesterday.

"I don't want to say the media is to blame but . . . if you can find a story that focused on anything but change, you come and show it to me," he said.

The old leadership team's response to the scandal is already in for some changes.

Where those leaders sought to separate lawmakers from lobbyists, Boehner will emphasize the immediate disclosure of contacts between lobbyists and lawmakers, allowing the voting public to decide whether those contacts are proper. And he will tackle what many Republicans see as the root of the lobbying problem -- the ease with which lawmakers can dole out millions of dollars in favors through pet provisions in spending bills.

Boehner said he endorsed only "in concept" a bill by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) that would make every such provision -- or "earmark" -- subject to challenge on the House or Senate floor. But he did say: "We need less numbers of earmarks. I think they've grown out of control, and we need more transparency -- where they come from, what their purposes are -- and we need more accountability."

Hastert's proposal to end all privately funded trips, even those funded by well-known nonprofit organizations such as the Aspen Institute, would be counterproductive, Boehner said. Members could be required to seek preapproval from the House ethics committee of any trip, he said.

But, he added, "members need to understand what's happening in the world. They need to understand what's happening with industry. That won't happen if they're locked up in a cubbyhole here in the Capitol."

Boehner called for the disclosure of any meal or gift from a lobbyist within 24 hours, both by the lawmaker and the lobbyist.

"If you can't go out and justify a $60 meal and see it in the press, then maybe you shouldn't go," he said. "But if you can, go ahead and do it, and let the world see what that relationship was. I think that's a far smarter way to go about this."

The lobbying industry should be better regulated, Boehner said, and he pledged to convene a House task force in hopes of creating federal rules that incorporate the most effective measures already in place in the states.

Those proposals are receiving mixed reviews from watchdog groups. If Boehner's task force produced an independent public integrity board patterned after those in many states, that could be the most effective proposal so far, said Mary Boyle, a spokesman for the watchdog group Common Cause.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company



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