Report from the Front

All the hoopla aside, it’s been a pretty lousy week for reform here in Washington, DC.

Responding to the snowballing corruption scandal centered around felon-lobbyist Jack Abramoff – there’s nothing like the threat of indictments to prompt members of Congress to action – both Republicans and Democrats raced to offer their own competing proposals to clean up Washington. Problem is, the proposals don’t look all that different – and neither addresses the root cause of the problem, which is the rot of special interest money in our political system, and the use of lobbyists as conduits for that money.

The Republicans took the first swing on Tuesday, and offered up a particularly weak cup of tea: a group of proposals that would ban some (but not all) lobbyist-sponsored or organized travel for members of Congress; restrict lobbyists from giving gifts (above a certain value) to members and their staffs; prohibit special access privileges for ex-members who become lobbyists; and, ever so slightly, slow down the revolving door between Congress and K St. (Incredibly, fully 43 percent of members leaving Congress for the private sector since 1998 have gone on to become lobbyists.)

The devil is still in the details, though, and as the Washington Post noted, the Republican proposals appear to have loopholes large enough for Jack Abramoff to drive a truck-load of cash through.

The Democrats had their turn on Wednesday, and with tremendous fanfare and pageantry, they announced… pretty much the same thing. They did a wonderful job of naming all the problems after Republicans, and this is not undeserved. The particularly close and ever-growing relationship between corporate lobbyists and Congress that we’ve witnessed over the past several years is no accident, but rather the very essence of the "K Street Project" that was created and pushed by former majority leader (and indicted) Rep. Tom DeLay of Texas, and Republican operatives such as Grover Norquist. The Dems also announced proposals to foster openness and participation in a legislative process that Republicans have all but closed to them, especially in the House. Fair enough.

Conspicuously missing from both sets of proposals, however, is any prohibition on campaign contributions or political fundraising by lobbyists. Huh? Two-thirds of Americans in a recent poll would outright ban campaign contributions from lobbyists, realizing that this is at the heart of the problem, yet both parties still refuse to even acknowledge the lobbyist-money-politician link. What’s the point of banning a lobbyist from giving a fancy dinner to a member , or an even fancier golf junket, if the lobbyist can still give thousands of dollars to the member – or better yet, run their PAC and bundle tens or even hundreds of thousands for them?

The other critical reform barely mentioned by either side is the need for an independent ethics watchdog to monitor and enforce the rules. At a time when the House ethics committee has failed to launch a single investigation, in the midst of the largest corruption scandal in decades, it is beyond comprehension that members of Congress still want to make believe they can police themselves. Quite obviously they cannot, and it’s time to end that farcical pretense once and for all.

A Public Citizen comparison of the two proposals, as well as related ethics legislation in the House and Senate, can be seen here.

The most encouraging thing this activist saw in Washington all week on the reform front was a vocal protest in front of Norquist’s downtown office during his weekly meeting with lobbyists. About 80 activists gathered in a drenching rain to demand an end to corruption, with a bevy of cameras to record the protest. Now, as always, it is citizen pressure that will make Congress do what it needs to do, and the Abramoff corruption scandal offers us a golden opportunity to do just that.

Want to help us push Congress to raise the ante, and start a bidding war on who can go further with reform? Go to our Action Center, and give your members of Congress a piece of your mind!

-Gordon Clark