WASHINGTON — In the wake of lobbyist Jack Abramoff's guilty plea on corruption charges, one point seems clear: Congress is now keenly interested in looking at how lobbyists do business, and may well make reforms by next November's elections.
Suddenly, everyone on Capitol Hill wants higher standards. For Republican leaders, the danger is looking like Johnny-come-latelies on reform. For Democrats, eager to regain control of at least one chamber of Congress this fall, the Abramoff scandal presents a golden opportunity to hammer home their point about a "GOP culture of corruption."
From the lobbying industry's perspective, what's clearly needed - before anyone changes the rules of the game - is beefed-up oversight.
"The biggest thing right now is ... there has to be an enforcement mechanism in place," says Paul Miller, president of the American League of Lobbyists. "Currently, we do not have that. If we did, I'm a true believer that Jack Abramoff would not have gotten away with what he did."
Mr. Abramoff has pleaded guilty to bilking his American Indian tribe clients out of millions of dollars and conspiring to bribe members of Congress. In exchange for his guilty plea, he is now aiding federal prosecutors in investigations of lawmakers, congressional aides, and other lobbyists.
In the last major reform, the Lobbying Disclosure Act of 1995, Congress boosted registration and disclosure requirements. Now, say lawmakers from both parties, additional measures are needed to enhance accountability.
Several members have already put forth plans. Last month, Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona proposed greater disclosure of lobbyists' activities, including for the first time those of grass-roots lobbying firms. His bill also mandates tighter restrictions on travel, gifts, and other favors lobbyists give lawmakers. Former members would have to wait two years instead of one before lobbying lawmakers. Rep. Christopher Shays (R) of Connecticut has introduced similar legislation in the House.
Though Senator McCain and Sen. Russ Feingold (D) of Wisconsin worked together on campaign-finance reform, they have taken different paths on lobbying. Senator Feingold's bill on lobbying and ethics reform, introduced in July, is more restrictive than McCain's. It would ban lobbyists' gifts to members and staff outright, and bar lobbyists from planning, financing, or participating in trips by lawmakers. Like McCain, he addresses the "revolving door" of former members becoming lobbyists, lengthening the waiting period to two years.
Feingold's bill is similar to a proposal introduced last spring by Democratic Reps. Martin Meehan of Massachusetts and Rahm Emanuel of Illinois. Echoing the lobbying industry's frustration over inadequate oversight, the Meehan-Emanuel bill would also require a review of whether the clerk of the House and the secretary of the Senate have the resources needed to enforce lobbying rules. And it calls for creating a bipartisan task force to strengthen ethics oversight in the House.
"If people don't think there's a sheriff in town, you'll wind up with the Wild West," says Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, a campaign-finance watchdog group. "That's what we've had."
Rep. David Obey (D) of Wisconsin proposed legislation last month that would make it harder for lobbyists to slip funding provisions into legislation, in addition to barring lobbyists from arranging or funding congressional travel. Congressman Obey, ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, says a majority of House Democrats now back the bill.
In the Senate, the Republican leadership has asked Sen. Rick Santorum (R) of Pennsylvania to draft a proposal for lobbying reform, and the senator's office says he hopes to have a working document ready by the end of the month.
Some conservatives argue that reform spurred by Abramoff's excesses - which are already illegal - could go too far. "The problem ... will become apparent when lawmakers try to devise measures that will not only spot abuses like Jack Abramoff's but also affect the everyday process of lobbying and legislation," writes Byron York of National Review in The New York Times.
But in the post-Abramoff world, Mr. York notes, "everyone's a reformer," and so new restrictions are a sure bet.
The American League of Lobbyists also expresses concern that the scandal could lead Congress to harm legitimate lobbying. The First Amendment to the Constitution provides that citizens have the right to petition the government for redress of grievances.
But the political stakes are too high for Republicans to ignore the alarm bells that Abramoff has triggered, former GOP House Speaker Newt Gingrich warned in a speech last week.
"The Abramoff scandal has to be seen as part of a much larger and deeper problem," the former speaker said, referring to "crony-like activities" that threaten the Republican revolution he spearheaded in 1994. He called for further restrictions on lobbyists and a ban on fundraising in Washington.