Watchdogs put Dems on notice

As Democrats move to unite behind an anti-corruption agenda aimed at exposing political weakness in the scandal-scarred GOP, watchdog groups are warning that a Democratic leadership lobbying-reform package will not win their automatic support.

As Democrats move to unite behind an anti-corruption agenda aimed at exposing political weakness in the scandal-scarred GOP, watchdog groups are warning that a Democratic leadership lobbying-reform package will not win their automatic support.

For the most part, government watchdog organizations have become stalwart Democratic allies, decrying ethical missteps by the Republican majority and helping to expose abuses of power in the lobbying industry. But the increasingly politicized debate over how to impose a new mandate of cleaner government on members, aides and lobbyists has watchdogs concerned that the Democrats will band together behind superficial reform.

Frank Clemente, director of Public Citizen’s Congress Watch division, said he was not satisfied after viewing an early draft of the “Honesty in Leadership” proposal that House and Senate Democrats will unveil next week.

“It’s an important step in the right direction, but doesn’t go nearly far enough,” Clemente said. “It lacks a ban on lobbyist campaign contributions, permits way too much special-interest-funded travel.”

Clemente declined to elaborate further on what he characterized as inadequacies in the Democratic plan, which is still being finalized and kept secret by staffers conscious of the issue’s sensitivity. While Democrats assemble their plan, House and Senate GOP leaders have tapped House Rules Committee Chairman David Dreier (R-Calif.) and Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) to begin drafting bills aimed at overhauling the nation’s lobbying laws.

“The bottom line is, work is under way at this point to have a broad proposal that has the support of the entire party, and it looks right now to be successful,” one senior Democratic aide said. “Republicans are very vulnerable on this issue. We need to have reform proposals and clean this up.”

Mike Surrusco, director of ethics campaigns for Common Cause, said he sat down with Democratic staff late last week to offer suggestions for a broader congressional reform package. But Common Cause, which will publicly release its own anti-corruption platform today, has no plans to join forces with Democratic leadership.

“Whoever is interested in what we think are good ideas for ethics reform, we are happy to talk to. If [Speaker] Dennis Hastert [R-Ill.] wants to talk to us — and I hope he does — I’ll get in a cab,” Surrusco said.

Asserting their independence from Democrats is important to maintaining the watchdogs’ political credibility. Watchdog leaders accustomed to seeing their tough reform recommendations go unheeded, even by Democrats, are suddenly getting their calls returned.

“Outside groups working in this area are not prepared to see cosmetic reforms passed in the guise of false claims that ‘we’ve now solved the problem and can move on,’” said Democracy 21 President Fred Wertheimer.

The watchdog community, Wertheimer said, is largely backing lobbying and ethics bills already introduced by Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.) as well as Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) and Reps. Marty Meehan (D-Mass.) and Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.).

“Those are the individuals who are going to have credibility in this battle, far more than any players who are now leaping into the game because the issue has become such a front-burner concern for the American people,” Wertheimer said.

Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.), aspiring to become House majority whip, expects to introduce his own anti-corruption bill when the House returns (see chart).

Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) agreed last week to co-sponsor the McCain-Shays bill, a slightly weaker version of its Feingold-Meehan-Emanuel counterpart, annoying Democrats who have hammered the GOP for being steeped in “cronyism and corruption.”

“Lieberman’s support for the McCain-Shays ethics plan does little more than give unfortunate cover to weak Republican incumbents who have been too little, too late in their sudden recognition of ethics reform as an issue,” one Democratic staffer said.

The Democratic “Honesty in Leadership” plan will address lobbying, ethics and institutional reform and eventually become formal legislation, said Jennifer Crider, spokeswoman for House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). Democratic members will be invited to stay in the capital for a two-day strategy session after the plan is introduced Jan. 18.

Watchdog groups, Crider said, “will make their own decision about it, but it will be a real reform.”

Emanuel, who offered to remove his name from his lobbying-reform bill after former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) dismissed it as a gift to “leftist groups,” said whatever anti-corruption package emerges in the party should be as strong as possible.

“I’m not interested in a debate about new party leaders. I’m interested in a debate about new principles,” Emanuel said.

House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) has also been closely involved in the drafting of the Democratic reform proposal, according to an aide. However, the evolving nature of the package made it difficult for members and watchdog groups to comment on specifics.

Clemente pointed to lobbyists’ widespread custom of serving as treasurers for leadership PACs and campaign committees, allowing them to curry favor with lawmakers by organizing fundraisers and securing donations. Dreier’s leadership PAC treasurer, Anthony Roda, lobbies for Dell, Coca-Cola and Time Warner, among other companies.

“If you’re doing a serious lobbying-reform proposal, it has to start with money, and none of these proposals is dealing with money,” Clemente said. “My concern is that Democrats who should be leading the reform effort are part of the system just as much as Republicans. It’s like an alcoholic who knows he needs to get off booze but is not quite ready to do it.”