When about 60 Democratic lawmakers joined their party’s bicameral leadership last week to rally for lobbying reform, one top-ranking party member was conspicuously absent: House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.).
It wasn’t the first time that Hoyer has missed a chance to back his party’s efforts to crack down on the lobbying industry, which is taking heat for spawning the scandal that now threatens the Republican grip on Congress.
Hoyer — who was fundraising in Florida when Democrats held their event last week — withheld his support from the first Democratic reform proposal that gathered several dozen signatures after its introduction last spring. In a statement earlier this month, he said the problem lay not with lobbyists but with Members of Congress.
To be sure, Hoyer released a statement of unequivocal support for the Democrats’ newest lobby reform package. In recent weeks, the Maryland Democrat has been working more closely with his colleagues in leadership, helping to shape the proposal itself, a senior Democratic aide said.
But his approach has differed from that of other Democratic leaders. In his public comments, Hoyer has maintained a consistent message: that the rules aren’t the problem — corrupt lawmakers are.
“It is not the rules that are the issue, it’s the character of the players that is the issue here,” he told Bloomberg last week. “That is what I want to focus on, the culture of corruption.”
Hoyer’s position as the House Democrats’ top liaison to K Street has made him more vulnerable than most to Republican charges of hypocrisy. Republican campaign committees have sent e-mails that point out Democratic boasts about their outreach work to lobbyists, hoping to paint the minority party as double-talkers on reform.
Last week, the Minority Whip’s office removed from the media section of its Web site a 2003 Roll Call story detailing Hoyer’s outreach to lobbyists, after National Journal’s Hotline pointed it out.
But in Hoyer’s approach to lobbying reform, aides and lobbyists close to the House’s No. 2 Democrat see a far-ranging political strategy at work.
With GOP leaders pledging quick action on reform packages and Democrats hard-pressed to stand in the way, Republicans are poised to claim they have successfully addressed the conditions that allowed disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff to prosper.
But Democratic lobbyist Steve Elmendorf said that if Democrats allow that to happen, they will have lost a critical issue for the party. If Republicans are able to make lobbyists their political straw men, they could be off the hook with voters in November.
“We should be for reform, but we should lead our efforts with why the Republicans are bad: How they’ve created this problem and exacerbated this problem, and not let lobby reform be seen as the end of the problem,” Elmendorf said.
That, Democratic strategists said, is exactly what Hoyer is trying to accomplish.
“For Democrats to say we’re going to be even tougher on reform allows Republicans to reframe the debate, and it validates what they’re doing,” one Democratic lobbyist argued. “That’s a huge mistake for Democrats.”