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Sept. 14, 2007

The 110th Congress Delivers on Lobbying and Ethics Reforms

Statement of Joan Claybrook, President, Public Citizen

Public Citizen heartily applauds all those in the 110th Congress, especially Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and all the freshmen lawmakers from the 2006 elections – for taking a huge step toward delivering on their promise to help “clean up the swamp” on Capitol Hill. The “Honest Leadership and Open Government Act of 2007” (S. 1), which imposes the most far-reaching ethics reforms on lobbyists and lawmakers in decades and opens the books on lobbyist fundraising, finally becomes law today.

Just a few of the reforms ushered in:

  • Lobbyists and campaign money to be an open book. The single most powerful tool for lobbyists to buy influence is fundraising for lawmakers, most of which has been undisclosed to the public. Under the new law, lobbyist fundraising for lawmakers, including the dollar amount of direct and bundled campaign contributions, and the names of lobbyists who host fundraising events and the amounts they raise, must be posted on the Internet.

A well-known example of the danger of keeping such activity under wraps involved a former lobbyist for Freddie Mac, Mitch Delk, who held 45 fundraisers in one election cycle for lawmakers overseeing the mortgage lending industry. After Public Citizen filed a complaint against Delk with the Federal Election Commission, the agency found violations of federal campaign finance laws and fined Freddie Mac, the U.S. government-sponsored mortgage finance company, $3.8 million. The fundraisers came to our attention largely because a fundraising firm had boasted about them on the Web.

  • Travel junkets grounded. Travel junkets were another popular tactic lobbyists deployed to gain access. Now, lobbying organizations may sponsor only one-day trips, just long enough to fly a member to a conference to give a speech. Corporate jets for this travel are effectively prohibited, and lobbyists, skilled at high-altitude schmoozing, can no longer tag along. 

Members have globe-trotted with the frequency of flight attendants, recently booking about 1,300 trips a year, mostly courtesy of lobbying organizations that often wrangled luxury private jets to ferry the lawmakers. At last count under the new travel rules, lawmakers are now traveling a fraction as often. According to early estimates by CQ Political MoneyLine, the number of privately sponsored congressional trips steeply dropped, to a pace likely to total about 450 trips in 2007. Unlike the golfing expeditions of yore, these trips are not junkets. They must be pre-approved, with an explanation and itinerary made available to the public.

  • “Bridges to Nowhere” no more. The names of the sponsors and recipients of earmarks – special spending measures often secretly inserted into bills by members of Congress – now must be posted on the Internet 48 hours before final approval of appropriations and tax bills.

Both the number and dollar amount of earmarks reached an all-time high during the 109th Congress – with 13,997 earmarks worth $27.3 billion in 2005 and 9,963 earmarks worth $29 billion in 2006. Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW) found that the greater scrutiny and a moratorium against earmarks this year resulted in a sharp reduction in both number and value of earmarks. In 2007, CAGW produced its smallest Congressional Pig Book since 1999, noting that “[t]here are no indoor rainforests, National Peanut Festivals, mariachi music grants, or teapot museums to be found.”

Congratulations to the 110th Congress for delivering substantial lobbying and ethics reforms. Next on the agenda: ensuring that these reforms continue to be monitored and enforced, and that special-interest money be removed from elections altogether through public financing of campaigns.

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