Time is ripe to reform lobbying

Last November, the world's largest and most foul-smelling flower attracted thousands of visitors to the US Botanic Garden, which lies at the foot of Capitol Hill. It took 14 years for the titan arum to fully reveal its unique, nose-pinching display - not unlike the malodorous lobbying activity of Jack Abramoff.

It could be argued that the misdeeds of Mr. Abramoff - who pleaded guilty last week to conspiracy, mail fraud, and tax evasion - were as singularly spectacular as the titan arum, and thus don't require reform of lobbying practices as a whole.

But as with the flower, the lobbying excesses and illegalities of Abramoff flourished inside a hothouse environment. The money-for-favors atmosphere in Washington needs to be addressed so that future cases like this can't be cultivated.

Court documents show Abramoff bilked his Indian tribe clients of more than $20 million. He paid (through a charity) $50,000 to the wife of a former senior staff member to the powerful House Republican Tom DeLay of Texas. In return, the staff member agreed to perform "a series of official acts."

But the reach of the case is broad, if exceptional. Abramoff, who is cooperating with federal investigators, says he has information that could implicate 60 members of Congress.

And the fact remains that the corrupting relationship between lobbying money and legislative favor is commonplace, practiced by both parties but perfected in a "pay to play" code of business encouraged by Mr. DeLay and other Republican leaders.

In 1999, overall spending on federal lobbying totaled $1.5 billion. In 2004, that jumped to $2.1 billion.

Of course, it's difficult to prove the type of quid pro quo favors exposed in Abramoff's plea deal, but lobbying reform legislation suddenly gaining attention on Capitol Hill can go a long way toward discouraging any incentives that would lead to an exchange.

A bill by Republican campaign- finance reform maverick Sen. John McCain of Arizona focuses on increased disclosure of lobbyists' activities. The bill, and a similar one in the House, require separate reporting of lobbyists' campaign contributions and detailed disclosure of lobbyist fundraising events - all electronically searchable.

Democratic Sen. Russell Feingold of Wisconsin champions a bill regulating the conduct of lobbyists, requiring them to report the date and subject of contacts with government officials and lawmakers. It, and a House version, would ban giving gifts of any value. All the bills extend to two years the time before former government officials can lobby.

Both approaches seem valid, and should be combined for the strongest reform possible. But other changes need to be made, from rules relating to pork-barrel spending to the serious consideration of a far greater role for publicly financed campaigns. (That move is so radical, it would probably require another major scandal to push Congress in that direction - though some states are moving toward it.)

While the Constitution's First Amendment allows for citizens "to petition the Government for the right to a redress of grievances," surely it didn't intend that such redress come through the influence of money and in secret deals.

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