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Congress backs off from lobbying limits

WASHINGTON—With the spotlight turned elsewhere, Republicans this week backed off their vow to crack down on the relationship between lobbyists and Washington politics.

A proposal offered by House Republicans late Thursday would suspend privately financed travel for members of Congress only until this year's congressional elections and would put off a decision on a permanent ban of travel, meals or other gifts until after the elections.

It would require lobbyists to disclose their activities more frequently, but offered only occasional audits to ensure compliance with no additional people or resources to enforce the rules.

It wouldn't do anything to limit pork-barrel spending, as some had urged, or ban those lobbyists who are former members of Congress from mingling with current lawmakers on the House floor or in the House gym. And it wouldn't lengthen the period in which former members of Congress or their staffs are prohibited from lobbying their former colleagues.

All the proposed new regulations stopped short of those offered weeks earlier when congressional leaders rushed to embrace reform in the wake of the political fallout from the scandal surrounding disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

Rep. David Dreier, R-Calif., who put the proposal together, called it "real reform." Outside analysts said it passed the buck.

"The House is taking baby steps that will be ineffective in preventing future Abramoff-style scandals," said Joan Claybrook, president of the watchdog group Public Citizen.

"Their interest is waning because the public's interest is waning," said Roberta Baskin, executive director of Center for Public Integrity, another Washington watchdog group.

In January, congressional leaders promised aggressive new regulations to assure the public that the government would never be influenced and tarred again by free-spending lobbyists like Abramoff. Republicans, in particular, feared a backlash that could hurt them in the fall elections.

Leading the reform charge, House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., urged permanently banning members of Congress from accepting privately financed trips on corporate jets, overseas junkets and gifts worth more than $20, such as meals or tickets to sporting events. It was necessary, he said at the time, "to regain the trust of the American people."

He also wanted to consider banning pork-barrel spending, or "earmarks," and stripping former members of their visiting privileges on the House floor or in the House gym if they became lobbyists.

Since then, however, Hastert has found Republicans and Democrats reluctant to stop all interaction with lobbyists.

First, members privately groused to Hastert that he was going too far. Then, House Republicans elected Rep. John Boehner of Ohio as their new majority leader, rejecting the bid of Rep. John Shadegg of Arizona, who promised a tougher crackdown on lobbying.

"This is a very difficult process when you begin to look at changing the rules in terms of the way we do business," Boehner said this week. "You know, the Senate started on it, looked like it was moving pretty well, but they've got their own issues that are bogging them down."

A key reason is that the public's attention has turned elsewhere to stories such as the possible turnover of some U.S. port operations to a foreign company and the vice president's accidental shooting of a friend. That took the heat off of Congress, at least temporarily.

A recent survey by the Pew Research Center found that fewer than one out of five Americans still followed the lobbying scandal story closely.

Yet public interest could rise again. "There will be other indictments. Just stand by," cautioned Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who hopes to offer a bipartisan set of new regulations on lobbyists and politicians.

And if the public tunes back in, it could find at least some of the Washington response to the scandal wanting.

A recent bipartisan survey, the Battleground Poll, found broad public support for many possible new regulations, including one that was offered by the Republicans and many more that weren't proposed:

The deepest support, 87 percent, was for greater disclosure by lobbyists about their work and their contacts with the government. The Republican proposal would require lobbyists to file more detailed reports more frequently.

Other popular reforms weren't in the plan, however, including:

_Broader ban on gifts, supported by 79 percent.

_Lengthening the lobbying ban for former members of Congress or their staffs from one year to two years, supported by 75 percent.

_Banning lobbying on the House floor and in House gym, supported by 67 percent.

_A broader travel ban, supported by 67 percent.

_Ending earmarks, supported by 59 percent.

Even before the proposal was unveiled, Republican pollster Ed Goeas said the survey offered a road map to political success—if it were followed.

But Baskin, of the Center for Public Integrity, noted that Congress has resisted such advice in the past. She recalled that the first proposal to ban members-turned-lobbyists from the House floor was made in 1897 _and that it's been rejected ever since.

"The way it works in Washington, lobbyists have tremendous power," she said. "And they will continue to as Congress backs off from all the verbiage about cracking down."

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

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