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Abramoff lobbying scandal could change Washington rules

WASHINGTON—A Chicago barkeeper-politician once boasted that his town wasn't ready for reform. Well, America is. Outrage at the lobbying scandal in the nation's capital is likely to force changes in the way lobbyists try to influence the federal government.

Members of Congress are rushing to write new reforms and are dusting off proposals that they'd ignored just months ago. Many will be enacted. Some, including a ban on gifts to politicians, which is favored by a vast majority of Americans, might still be a tough sell in a capital where the political machinery often is greased by golf trips, meals and sports tickets.

It's worth noting that any reform could produce unintended consequences, as lobbyists and their cash find new roads into politics that aren't now envisioned. That's what happens every time lawmakers try to overhaul campaign-finance rules.

And new reforms wouldn't necessarily stop another Jack Abramoff, the lobbyist at the heart of the current scandal: He simply broke the old rules and laws. But new reforms might better regulate the flow of cash from those lobbyists who do heed the law, advocates say.

"The prospects that something will happen are very good," said Fred Wertheimer, the president of Democracy 21, a nonpartisan ethics-watchdog group. "The battle is to ensure that the reforms are real and effective rather than merely cosmetic. And that will be a battle."

New polls show that the American people want reform in the wake of revelations that disgraced lobbyist Abramoff bilked gambling-rich Indian tribes out of millions, then lavished cash and gifts on lawmakers in exchange for favors that prosecutors have yet to specify.

An ABC-Washington Post Poll released Tuesday showed that 90 percent of Americans want a ban on lobbyist gifts to lawmakers, 67 percent want to ban lobbyists from making campaign contributions and 54 percent want to stop lobbyists from raising campaign donations from other contributors. The poll of 1,001 adults, which was conducted last Thursday through Sunday, had a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.

Barring all spending by lobbyists is unlikely. The Constitution protects the right of anyone to try to influence the government. But the pressure on lawmakers to act appears irresistible.

Last Sunday, after failing to schedule any action on lobby reform despite months of growing clamor, House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., said he wanted to "move forward aggressively and quickly" to consider lobbying reforms. His call followed Abramoff's guilty plea last week, which changed the political dynamic from indifference to zeal for reform.

Hastert appointed Rep. David Dreier, R-Calif., to head a review effort and asked him to contact members of both parties for ideas.

There already are plenty, including a plan from Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Conn.; one from Reps. Tom Allen, D-Maine, Barney Frank, D-Mass., David Obey, D-Wis., and David Price, D-N.C.; another from former House Speaker Newt Gingrich; and one first proposed last May by Reps. Rahm Emanuel, D-Ill., and Martin Meehan, D-Mass., which never got a hearing then.

Among their proposals:

_Banning gifts such as meals and sports tickets to members of Congress and their staffs.

_Requiring members of Congress and staff to pay the fair market value for travel on private jets and seats in sports stadiums.

_Forcing regular Internet postings of the cash that lobbyists spend on politicians.

_Banning all fundraising in the Washington area.

_Barring former members of Congress from lobbying on the floor of the House of Representatives. (Proposed by a House member; each house of Congress sets its own rules.)

_Prohibiting lobbyists from taking any trips with members of Congress.

_Prohibiting lobbyists from arranging trips.

_Doubling to two years the minimum time that former members of Congress or their staffs are prohibited from lobbying their former offices or committees.

Some, but not all, also propose tougher enforcement of rules, including increased penalties for violations.

Bruce Josten, the chief lobbyist of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said he didn't think new limits would have much impact on a lobbying industry he calls largely honest.

"I am not sure a two-year ban on top of a one-year ban achieves anything greater than what a one-year ban does," Josten said.

Reform advocates note that it's easy to violate rules when they aren't enforced. They complain that the agencies that are charged with enforcing most rules—the congressional ethics committees and the Federal Election Commission—have been lax in punishing lawmakers, who are either their peers or the people who pay them.

"The House ethics committee has been nonfunctional for a year. The FEC is a captive agency of the Congress," said Wertheimer, of Democracy 21. "When everyone understands there are no sheriffs in town, you end up with an `anything goes' attitude. Enforcement is an essential part of the reforms."

For more on reform proposals:


(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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