Senate's lobby reform: strong enough?

A bill that bans meals and gifts from lobbyists passed Wednesday, but critics say it falls short.

As senators hunkered down for a final vote on lobbying reform this week, a US district judge in Miami was sentencing ex-lobbyist Jack Abramoff to nearly six years in prison for fraud.

The buzz from the trial helped the Senate to a 90-8 vote to require more disclosure of lobbyists, but fell far short of the changes that reformers say is necessary to stem corruption.

The Abramoff sentence could have been longer, but his defense lawyers report that Mr. Abramoff has turned over thousands of documents to help federal investigations of bribery and corruption in Congress. Prosecutors wanted to reward his cooperation.

It's a coincidence not lost on members of Congress, who are reviving efforts to move reform legislation before fall elections.

"It is fitting and appropriate that we're completing our work in the Senate on this stage of the lobbying reform bill on the day that former lobbyist Jack Abramoff received his first prison sentence," said Sen. Susan Collins (R) of Maine, who chairs the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, after the vote.

The scandals involving Abramoff and former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R) of California, recently sentenced to eight years for bribery involving his placement of earmarks in spending bills for defense contractors, "prompted us to take a look at practices that, while legal, eroded public confidence in the integrity of our institutions here in Washington," she added.

The Senate's bill could have been tougher. The bill bans gifts from lobbyists, requires disclosure of spending on grassroots lobbying activities, and quarterly reports from lobbyists that would be available electronically - a first for the Senate.

However, proposals to ban congressional earmarks and privately funded travel failed to make it into the bill. So did a plan to create a new Office of Public Integrity to take the investigation of ethics charges out of the hands of senators.

Most important, the bill failed to close the door on the vast number of ways lobbyists can help members of Congress, including bundling campaign contributions, sponsoring fundraisers, paying for member events, contributing to a lawmaker's charity.

"We would have been much, much better off with no bill," says Keith Ashdown, vice president of policy at Taxpayers for Common Sense. "Everything they did, there's a simple way around it."

The ban on adding earmarks at the last minute can be circumvented by adding them before conference negotiations. "Based on what the Senate passed today, Duke Cunningham could come back to Congress today and rip off the government for tens of millions more and we wouldn't know it," says Mr. Ashdown.

But most members are convinced that the scandal won't touch them personally. The House version of the bill has been assigned to at least four committees - never a sign that a bill is on a fast track.

"It's very problematic because of the House," says Marshall Wittmann, a former conservative activist now with the Democratic Leadership Council. "The perks are too enticing for them to convert to the religion of reform."

While new House majority leader John Boehner (R) of Ohio doesn't personally favor the use of earmarks, or targeting funds to particular projects - and has taken heat over it in his home district - he is struggling to bring the GOP caucus along. "The Abramoff and Cunningham convictions aren't not going to fuel this any more. It's going to take future indictments," says Ashdown.

A closer look at the lobbying changes

The Senate voted 90-8 Wednesday to approve a number of changes to the way lobbying is reported and conducted. Supporters say the bill, which must be reconciled with a yet-to-be-determined House version, provides greater transparency to the legislative process. Critics say it lacks tough enforcement and falls short of the sweeping reforms first proposed in the wake of the Jack Abramoff scandal.

The Senate bill does:

• Deny floor privileges to former members of Congress who are lobbyists.

• Prohibit lobbyists from giving meals or gifts to lawmakers.

• Require lawmakers to wait two years - not just one - before becoming lobbyists.

• Make it harder for members to add pet projects, called earmarks, to bills.

The Senate bill does not:

• Ban privately funded travel for members.

• Ban earmarks.

• Extend the meal-and-gift ban to companies that hire lobbyists.

• Create an Office of Public Integrity, an independent body that would investigate possible ethics violations by senators.

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