Lobbying reform targeted at DeLay, Abramoff issues

Democratic Reps. Rahm Emanuel (Ill.) and Marty Meehan (Mass.) will propose legislation to address issues raised in the investigations into Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

The proposals, which could be introduced next week, would require lobbyists to say how private groups pay for congressional travel, force lawmakers to disclose their ties to nonprofit groups and double the time that retiring lawmakers and staff would have to wait before lobbying, to two years.
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Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.), center: “How we govern and the role of lobbyists representing interests has to be reformed.”

Two congressional committees and the Justice Department are investigating Abramoff, who has been accused of bilking more than $60 million from Indian tribes and using corporate and personal money to pay for lawmakers’ trips overseas.

House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) and Rep. Bob Ney (R-Ohio) have traveled with Abramoff to Great Britain on separate occasions. National Journal reported that Abramoff paid for part of DeLay’s expenses. The lawmakers have said that the House ethics committee approved the trips and that Abramoff lied to them.

Emanuel, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), has said he intends to make alleged ethical violations by Republicans an issue in the 2006 mid-term elections.

Ney, chairman of the House Administration Committee, decried Emanuel’s proposed campaign tactic at a GOP conference meeting two weeks ago.

“It’s a big community,” said Emanuel, who shared the proposals with The Hill. “How we govern and the role of lobbyists representing interests has to be reformed.”

The Center for Public Integrity, a nonpartisan research group, has released a study showing that since 1998 $13 billion had been spent lobbying the federal government. Expenditures on lobbying have nearly doubled while spending on campaigns, as a percentage of gross domestic product, has remained flat over the years.

While spending on lobbying has exploded, the Center found there was little oversight, writing, “Almost 20 percent — 36,000 out of 183,000 — of lobbying forms were filed late.” Some were not filed at all.

Emanuel said he became interested in the idea last year after meeting several congressional scholars to discuss ideas for legislation. Meehan, coincidentally, had been working on similar legislation.

“The core of what we suggested was more transparency,” said the Brookings Institution’s Thomas Mann, who brainstormed ideas with Emanuel and Norman Ornstein, a congressional scholar at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI).  

Mann added, “The more transparency, the better.”

Larry Noble, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, agreed, saying, “Generally, anything that is going to increase disclosure is important.”

Since the 1970s, Congress has occasionally sought to shine light on the relationships between lawmakers and lobbyists by demanding more disclosure.

But those same efforts have been rolled back. For example, in 2000, President Clinton overturned a five-year ban on lobbying by top executive branch officials after they leave government. In 1993, he issued an executive order banning top officials from lobbying for five years and imposing a lifetime ban on lobbying on behalf of foreign governments.

Critics of the current rules complain that many of the rules are not enforced and that Congress fails to police itself.

Emanuel and Meehan have proposed eight other changes. The bill would count grassroots activities as lobbying, make lobbyists report in more detail about who they have worked for on Capitol Hill and require that financial disclosure be filed four times a year instead of twice.

The fine for failing to disclose clients would rise to $100,000 from $50,000, and the Government Accountability Office (GAO) would have oversight on the House and Senate clerk’s offices, which enforce the lobbying rules.

Finally, they propose to insert into the House Code of Official Conduct the “K Street Project” provision, which would prevent lawmakers seeking to place former staffers and lawmakers in top jobs at lobbying firms and trade associations.

The House ethics committee slapped DeLay in 1998 for pressuring the Electronics Industries Alliance to hire a Republican. Instead, the group hired former Rep. Dave McCurdy (D-Okla.).

If considered, the bill would be the first attempt to change the Lobbying Disclosure Act of 1995, passed by the 104th Congress.

Meehan is a longtime advocate for political reform; in the 1990s, he and Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.) pushed campaign-finance reform that was enacted after the 2002 midterm elections.