So Far, So Good

Posted January 23, 2007 at 6:31pm

Senators congratulated themselves last week on passage of what Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) called “the toughest reform bill in the history of this body as relates to ethics and lobbying.” Whether or not the changes match or exceed the post-Watergate reforms of the 1970s, they surely are significant and praise is in order.

The Senate matched the House in banning most gifts, travel and meals paid for by lobbyists. Its bill, passed 96-2, will require disclosure of the sponsors of earmarks, require corporate-jet travel to be paid for at the charter rate and forbid most Senators’ spouses from lobbying Senators and their staffs.

Some of the Senate provisions now require House action to take effect, such as the requirement that lobbyists disclose their “bundling” of campaign donations and the ban on “lavish” gatherings paid for by lobbyists at party conventions. We trust that the House will pass a law just as tough as that of the Senate.

One major deficiency of the Senate bill is exclusion of a provision to require disclosure of “astroturf” lobbying — the generation of mass communications to Members from special interests often joined together in coalitions euphemistically named to conceal their true aims.

Senators removed astroturf disclosure from their bill on a 55-43 vote after it was attacked by an array of groups, mainly conservative but also including the ACLU, on grounds that it would stifle true grass-roots appeals to Congress and inhibit free speech. Pro-reform groups such as Democracy 21 assert that the objections may have been based on confusion over the wording of the Senate draft bill and a House measure introduced last year.

The House should fashion and pass a bill that does what the Senate draft claimed to do — require professional lobbyists who form and manage coalitions to disclose what groups comprise them and how much money they are spending to drum up appeals to Congress — without chilling true grass-roots organization. Then the Senate should pass it as part of a conference report.

The Senate roundly defeated, 71-27, a proposal to create an independent ethics counsel to investigate alleged wrongdoing by Senators. We concur with the reasoning — that Congress should be responsible for policing its own ethics.

This proposition will be put to an early test, however, when the Senate Ethics Committee begins to pass on rules governing pre-approval of trips paid for by outside groups and to define which “widely attended events,” campaign fundraisers and convention events lobbyists will be allowed to pay for.

Some critics fear that, instead of limiting the connections between legislative lobbying and campaign fundraising, the new reforms will tighten them — in fact, enshrine them. It’s up to the ethics committees to see that this does not happen. If lobbyists can wine and dine Members freely and then are required to make it all legitimate by handing over a campaign check, this won’t be reform.