Much like campaign finance reform, there’s a never-ending debate about how to control lobbying in Washington. It gets settled once a decade or so, albeit unsatisfactorily, because it can never be settled perfectly. And it usually takes a scandal to do it.
Right on time — 10 years after the Lobbying Disclosure Act of 1995 — the flap over lobbyist-paid travel by House Majority Leader Tom Delay (R-Texas) and other Members has triggered broad agreement, at least in principle, that the problem deserves a new look. We urge both the House and Senate to hold hearings and produce legislation that will tighten standards and improve disclosure of lobbyist activity.
Let’s stipulate: Lobbying is an honorable profession, an adjunct of the constitutionally-protected right of citizens to petition their government. Moreover, lobbyists are indispensable as a source of information for Congress. And Congressional travel, be it domestic or international, is also valuable for ensuring that Members can fully understand the issues they’re legislating about.
The problems arise, of course, because special interests represented by lobbyists naturally want to gain all the access they possibly can to press their case on Members and staff. The bigger the special interest, the more it can afford to buy access. And travel provides a special opportunity to turn access into personal bonding.
Under the 1995 law, Congress decided to require stricter disclosure of lobbying practices. But these safeguards are inadequate. Members have ignored report-filing requirements and, under scrutiny, are now scrambling to fulfill their obligations. After Democrats charged that DeLay’s travel amounted to corruption, Republicans countered, in effect, that “everybody does it,” including Democrats.
Only one piece of legislation has been introduced so far to address the “lobbyist problem.” Even though it’s primarily the work of two Democrats, including Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Rahm Emanuel (Ill.), some of its content has been received approvingly by House Administration Chairman Bob Ney (R-Ohio), who has promised hearings on the matter.
We urge Ney to get on with it. Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) has promised to introduce a companion measure, and we hope that will trigger prompt Senate consideration.
There seems to be widespread agreement on the need for electronic filing of lobbying reports. The bill calls for them to be made quarterly instead of semi-annually, but we don’t see why they can’t be filed more often than that — perhaps even weekly — so that the press and public can track lobbyist activity leading up to consideration of legislation. We also support disclosure of so-called grass-roots lobbying and identification of the sources of funds of the euphemistically named coalitions that are created around practically every major issue.
The bill tightens reporting requirements by groups sponsoring Congressional travel and by Members and staff who go on trips. It also increases penalties for violations, directs the House ethics committee to establish guidelines for travel and requires that the Government Accountability Office report on compliance with the system. There well may be flaws lurking in the bill, but consideration shouldn’t be blocked either by partisanship or by false hopes that the “lobbyist problem” will blow over.