Bill Seeks to Put Curbs on Lobbyists
SCOTT SIMON, host:
This week four Democratic congressmen proposed new ways to make it more difficult for special interests to influence legislation. David Obey of Wisconsin, Barney Frank of Massachusetts, Tom Allen of Maine, David Price of North Carolina have put forth a number of rule changes that they say will help protect the integrity of Congress. Lawmakers often complain that they're asked to vote on bills that contain last-minute changes suggested by lobbyists. Now there's been a whole slurry of ethical problems falling on the House in recent weeks, including the Justice Department investigation of lobbyist Jack Abramoff and his relationship to lawmakers of both parties, including former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay. Longtime California Congressman Randy "Duke" Cunningham resigned his office recently when he admitted to taking bribes from a defense contractor. He's also under indictment. Congressman David Price joins us from the Capitol.
Mr. Price, thanks for being with us.
Representative DAVID PRICE (Democrat, North Carolina): Good morning.
SIMON: Now help us understand the significance of you asking that legislation not be called for a vote unless it's been in print and available to all members of Congress for at least 24 hours.
Rep. PRICE: Well, you would think that's just common sense, but it's so often violated. This is something any member of the House should want, to make certain, among other things, that we have a chance to review legislation before we vote on it, and also that extraneous items don't get slipped into legislation without the House taking due notice.
SIMON: Let me ask you about lobbyists because a lot of them obviously are former members of Congress, so they have privileges. They can eat in the restaurant, they can work out in the gym. They can, I suppose, come up to you and lobby you while you're in your boxer shorts there in the House gym. Realistically, what can you do to lessen the distance between lobbyists and legislators?
Rep. PRICE: Well, when it's former legislators, of course, there's a countervailing consideration, and that is the honor, respect, friendship that's due the former members of the body. While what you describe in the gym--I won't say it never happened, it's mainly--the privileges of the former members is mainly about access to House facilities and House members in ways that I think aren't objectionable. What does go over the line, though, is if those members in a lobbying capacity are conducting their lobbying activities in an official setting, especially on the floor of the House. And so we really need to stop that. I don't say it's a prevalent practice, but I know it has occurred, and I think this rule that we're suggesting is a modest and appropriate remedy, saying that the privileges to go on the floor would be suspended, effectively, when the House is debating or voting on an issue in which that former member has a financial interest or on which he's lobbying.
SIMON: NPR, for example, has an ethical rule which I think is pretty common in media organizations. We're not allowed to accept gifts from outsiders above $25 in value. What kind of restrictions are there on members of Congress?
Rep. PRICE: There is a gift rule in Congress as well, which I think has a $50 threshold, and that was enacted as part of an ethics package back when I first came to the Congress, I think around the late '80s.
SIMON: What about the rules on travel?
Rep. PRICE: The rules on travel, we think, are a little vague. We need to have stricter rules. Lobbyists simply should not be--registered lobbyists simply should not be accompanying members on travel, and the sponsor of travel should not be someone who has a lobbying agenda. We're trying to draw a brighter line and a line that admittedly is more restrictive. We think it needs to be.
SIMON: What--are you going to seek members of both parties, because obviously, as we noted, it's four Democrats, and often if somebody really wants to get a bill passed, as opposed to just being interviewed about it, they try and get members of both parties to sign up.
Rep. PRICE: It is four Democrats. It's four Democrats who have proceeded independently, however. This is not a leadership project. It's something that the four of us put together. And the answer is yes, we're going to seek co-sponsors from both sides. And as we stressed in unveiling this, there are things here that do have to do with how the House is being run and how power is being abused. So we are talking here to some extent about the majority abuses as we perceive them. But this isn't just a minority perspective, and I really want to stress that. We're talking here about rules that we would hope to live by when and if we're in the majority.
SIMON: Congressman David Price of North Carolina, speaking from the Capitol.
Thank you very much.
Rep. PRICE: Thank you.