Multinational Monitor


Not Kosher: The Ralph Reed-Jack Abramoff Connection.
by Andrew Wheat

The United States, Bolivia, and the Political Economy of Coca
by Gretchen Gordon

The CAFTA Chronicles: Strong-Arming Central America, Mocking Democracy
by Tom Ricker and Burke Stansbury

Thais Take to the Streets to Stop U.S. Trade Agenda
by Martin Khor

Drilling East Timor: Australia's Oil Grab inthe Timor Sea
by Charles Scheiner


Saving $60 Billion: Lawrence Korb's Common Sense Budget Defense Plan
An Interview with Lawrence Korb

The Market for Virtue: The Impact of Corporate Social Responsibility
An Interview with David Vogel


Behind the Lines

The Lobby Reform Fiasco

The Front
Philippines Gets Stomped - EPA Program Off Track

The Lawrence Summers Memorial Award

Names In the News

Book Notes


The Lobbying Reform Fiasco

"I have been deeply disturbed by those who have broken the rules of this House and in some instances have pleaded guilty to breaking the law. … Comprehensive lobbying reform is the right thing to do."

That was U.S. Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert in January, matching rhetorical flourishes with the Democratic leadership on the need for lobby reform in the wake of super-lobbyist Jack Abramoff's felony guilty pleas.

Hastert wasn't alone. "It's out of control," Ohio Republican Senator George V. Voinovich said at a committee hearing. "We all hate it. And it's about time we collectively think about how we can get off the treadmill."

But the zeal for reform faded quickly. Just a month after Abramoff pled guilty to fraud and conspiracy charges, the clarion calls had hushed to whispers, and the "comprehensive" reform that had been promised gave way to proposals so inadequate that they don't deserve the label "piecemeal."

This fiasco was predictable. At the same hearing where Voinovich bemoaned the "out of control" system, maverick extreme right-wing Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma said, "We ought to be real frank with the American people. We're going to do a lot of window dressing, but in the long run we're not going to change anything till we change the motivation that the next election is more important than anything else."

Only the first few acts in this drama have been written, however, and it does need to end as farce.

The debate over "lobby reform" is in the same stage as the "corporate reform" debate after the Enron scandal - after the initial headlines, momentum died down, and the forces of the status quo maneuvered to keep any reform legislation off the table altogether. But after Enron came WorldCom, and then it was no longer possible for Big Business to demand its corporate allies do nothing. So too is it very likely that upcoming indictments of Members of Congress will revitalize the demand for more serious reform legislation of some kind, and make the do-nothing posture untenable.

The challenge for those concerned about enhancing the state of U.S. democracy is to prepare, frame issues and organize so that the eventual remedial legislation does not emulate the very modest Sarbanes-Oxley reform bill that passed after the WorldCom scandals.

Good government groups such as Public Citizen and Common Cause in Washington, D.C. are proposing a range of lobbyist-related reforms that go well beyond what is now on the table in Congress. These include such measures as:

  • Prohibiting lobbyists from soliciting campaign contributions and limiting their ability to make contributions of their own;
  • Banning lobbyist gifts to Congress;
  • Creating an independent ethics office to investigate Congressional ethical abuses;
  • Better disclosure of lobbyist activities; and
  • Slowing the revolving door between Congress and the K Street lobby shops by extending from one year to two the ban on former Members of Congress and senior staff lobbying after leaving their government posts, and broadening the definition of lobbying.

These are all worthwhile measures that would make things smell less bad in Washington.

It is also fair to say: not that much less bad.

There is now in Washington a culture of corruption. More serious than wrongdoing that crosses the line into illegality are the rules - but especially the norms - that treat what are plainly corrupting behaviors as acceptable and routine.

In this context, it makes sense for advocates to position for the pending reform opportunity in two ways.

First is to focus on smaller reforms that might matter in their own right. Some of the ethics proposals now being pushed perhaps meet this test. More promising, though, are reforms urged by Senator Byron Dorgan, D-North Dakota, and two dozen other senators in the Accountability in Contracting Act of 2006. This bill focuses on crony contracting, and while not perfect, would meaningfully restrain the contracting abuses that underlie much of what lobbyists do. Among the proposals in this bill are criminal penalties for war profiteers, denying contracts to repeat corporate wrongdoers, mandated competitive bidding for contracts, and mandated public contract oversight.

A second approach is to focus energy on fundamental campaign finance reform - full public financing of federal elections. Organizations such as Public Citizen and Common Cause are strong supporters of public financing, but they aren't emphasizing the call for clean elections because they believe there is no chance of succeeding with such demands.

It is entirely reasonable to be skeptical of the prospects for achieving public financing of campaigns. (And, it should be noted, public financing is no panacea for the problem of corporate influence over policymaking.) But it is also reasonable to be skeptical about whether changing some lobbying practices - even if making such demands seems a stretch in the current Congress - will have much effect on Washington's culture of corruption, and the policies it engenders.



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