Republicans backing away from reform effort… already

Would you lobby a sweaty member of Congress?

As House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) attempts to show he is serious about reform in the midst of the Abramoff lobbyist/bribery scandal, his efforts are already being met with derision – and opposition from his own party.

The first reform put up for a vote in the House yesterday would remove the Congressional gym privileges, enjoyed by all former members, from those who become lobbyists. (As 43 percent of them have done since 1998, according to Public Citizen research.)

Looking at many members of Congress, it’s hard to imagine they are in the gym long enough to be lobbied, and the bill passed overwhelmingly, 379-50. But it was also met with skepticism by some Republicans, and outright derision by Democrats. As Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.) said, "I’ve been going to the gym for 14 years, and nobody’s in there lobbying.” Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) noted that he hadn’t been lobbied in the gym in 24 years, thoughtfully adding, "Of course, I’m pretty ugly naked." (Thanks for the image, Harry.) Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) jokingly suggested a compromise, in which former members would have to give up an exercise machine to current members, if asked.

All joking aside, though, the fact the Republican leadership would start with such a minor reform is not a good sign. While Public Citizen supports this (and the more consequential measure of banning ex-members-turned-lobbyists from the House floor, also included in the measure), such reforms are merely a drop in the bucket, given the magnitude of the current scandals.

Ominously, the Washington Post reports that many House Republicans are already resisting Hastert’s more serious proposed reform, namely banning all privately funded travel by members. (Think golfing trips at lavish resorts…) Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio), who just won an election to replace Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) as House majority leader, calls the ban “childish.” Others are balking at a proposed limit on gifts from lobbyists, saying that mere disclosure is good enough.

Of course, travel bans or gift limits are themselves only next steps, and so far, no one is talking about the real heart of the issue, which is stopping lobbyists from fundraising for members…and ultimately public financing of federal elections.

-Gordon Clark