May 10, 2006 – Both chambers of Congress have churned out so-called "ethics reform" bills that, in the eyes of watchdog groups, are as spineless as the corrupt lawmakers they purport to rein in. For organizations that have long called for greater oversight and enforcement of lobbying regulations in Washington, the legislation merely tweaks the status quo, while allowing lawmakers to sell their influence with little consequence.
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"The process as it stands now is clearly broken," said Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW). "The current legislation is not going to be amended to get teethâ€¦. They werenâ€™t interested in ever having real legislation."
The House bill, introduced in the aftermath of the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal and approved last week, would require lobbyists to publicly report their activities more frequently, tighten lawmakersâ€™ obligations to disclose conflicts of interest with lobbyists, and regulate "earmarks" â€“ the legislative handouts given to special interests.
In a statement following the passage of the legislation, Representative David Dreier (R-California), the billâ€™s main sponsor, proclaimed it would give "real teeth and transparency" to current regulations by providing "everyone involved every incentive to know the rules and comply with them." He touted provisions that would stiffen financial penalties for violations and require "ethics training" for congressional staff.
As parallel House and Senate bills head into the reconciliation process, watchdog groups warn that the supposed movement toward transparency is a political smokescreen.
But as parallel House and Senate bills head into the reconciliation process, watchdog groups warn that the supposed movement toward transparency is a political smokescreen.
Public Citizen says that if lawmakers are sincere about cutting off the corporate money trail, they should close travel loopholes, which currently enable industry and other interest groups to lavish lawmakers with luxury travel junkets financed through "nonprofit" shell organizations.
The group has also called on lawmakers to enact broader anti-corruption measures, like an independent oversight mechanism to monitor ethical transgressions, and strict caps on federal campaign contributions from lobbyists to political action committees.
The problem, reformers say, is that the people writing the rules are the ones charged with enforcing them, and as a result, are often the ones violating them.
In its ongoing investigation of Abramoff, the "super-lobbyist" recently convicted on corruption-related charges, CREW revealed that some of Abramoffâ€™s closest cronies on Capitol Hill are also champions of the House lobbying reform legislation.
Between 2001 and 2004, Abramoffâ€™s extensive lobbying network, tied to the Native-American casino industry, doled out tens of thousands of dollars in political contributions to two co-sponsors of the bill, House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Illinois) and Representative Eric Cantor (R-Virginia). The two worked with other House Republicans in 2003 to pressure the Interior Department to block the casino-development plans of a tribe in competition with one of Abramoffâ€™s clients.
The problem, reformers say, is that the people writing the rules are the ones charged with enforcing them...
Reflecting on what she sees as a long pattern of impunity in Congress, Sloan remarked, "The fact of the matter is, a lot of the stuff that happened was already against the rulesâ€¦. So new rules have no more use than old rules, if you donâ€™t enforce the rules."
Some of the dust on those old rules has been kicked up by a report on lobbying disclosure by the Center for Public Integrity (CPI), a public-interest research organization.
The 1995 Lobbying Disclosure Act requires lobbyists to report their activities and expenditures every six months, and violations carry a fine of up to $50,000, which would rise to $100,000 under the current reform bills. But in its survey of over 180,000 lobbying disclosure forms filed with the Senate Office of Public Records since 1998, the CPI found that 14,000 documents were missing, and nearly 20 percent of forms were filed late.
Researchers also found that among the 250 top lobbying firms, 210 had not fulfilled all reporting requirements. Alex Knott, the project manager for CPIâ€™s LobbyWatch program, said that typically the disclosure forms are of little public value, "sloppily" filled out and not linked to specific legislation.
Records of penalties for non-compliance are similarly obscure: in CPIâ€™s investigation last year, the House, Senate and the US Attorneyâ€™s office in DC, which is tasked with handling disclosure-related indictments, all provided no data on how the rules were being enforced.
"Basically, lobbyists know they can break the rules and get away with it," said Knott, noting that fewer than a dozen staffers in the Senate Office of Public Records oversee the backdoor deals of thousands of lobbyists.
On Monday, the liberal advocacy coalition Campaign for Americaâ€™s Future dampened the self-congratulatory mood on Capitol Hill with a report on the drug-industryâ€™s influence on the controversial Medicare Part D prescription-drug plan, which enrolled beneficiaries in private plans and prevented Medicare from negotiating lower medication prices.
Drawing from news reports and public records, the group found that in 2003 and 2004, as Part D was shepherded through Congress, drug-makers funneled about $240 million into lobbying efforts.
The Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks the influence of money in politics, reports that former Representative Billy Tauzin (R-Louisiana), one of the planâ€™s leading authors, received almost $270,000 in pharmaceutical-industry campaign contributions from the 1989 election cycle through 2004. He then left government for an even more lucrative position heading the drug-industry lobby organization Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA).
Tauzin also left in his wake a Medicare-funded drug plan that has been maligned as prohibitively complex for countless seniors and excessively profitable for drug companies. According to an analysis by the Boston University School of Public Health, in the first eight years of the plan, more than 60 percent of spending on new drug purchases for beneficiaries â€“ about $140 billion â€“ will go to pump the industryâ€™s profits.
Calling Tauzin an emblem of "a corporate feeding frenzy in Washington," Toby Chaudhuri, a spokesperson for the Campaign for Americaâ€™s Future, commented, "His work on the prescription drug law highlights the need to reform a corrupt system and provides a test case for any reform measure."
The current legislation would modestly enhance restrictions on Washingtonâ€™s so-called "revolving door"â€“ through which the lobbying sector absorbs well-connected former legislators for new careers to buy access from the other side of the corporate-Congress connection. The Senate ethics bill would extend, for two years, the "cooling off" period between government employment and the start of lobbying activities.
Both the House and Senate legislation would stiffen conflict-of-interest disclosure rules for outgoing lawmakers. But reform advocates have pushed for more comprehensive controls, pointing out that the proposed strictures would apply narrowly to the direct, personal lobbying of legislators, but not prohibit the directing or management of a lobbying campaign.
Among departing members of Congress in 2004, reports Public Citizen, the lobbying industry plucked nearly half of Republicans and 40 percent of Democrats eligible to lobby.
One fundamental reform for which public-interest groups have advocated is the creation of an independent ethics oversight body. The idea has met resounding silence in both chambers of Congress. As it finalized its legislation in late March, the Senate promptly smothered a proposal for an Office of Public Integrity. The Office would have conducted investigations under the direction of a Senate-appointed legal expert and recommended measures to the Senate Ethics Committee.
Though the proposed office was a watered-down version of reform groupsâ€™ demand for a completely separate federal oversight agency, it was nonetheless shot down in a 67-to-30 vote, amid complaints that it would encroach on the Senate Ethics Committeeâ€™s current powers.
Craig Holman, a lobbyist with Public Citizen, predicted that, whatever shape the reform legislation ultimately takes, it would do little to straighten out a crooked system.
"Quite frankly, even if you put these two bills together," he said, "it provides so little in terms of reforming the practices of lobbying activity on Capitol Hill, as well as the ethical practices of members of Congress, that I would much rather see nothing come out of this Congress."