Changing the Lobbying Status Quo: What Will Work?

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Steve Inskeep discusses proposals to reform Congressional lobbying with Ken Gross, a lawyer in Washington with the firm Skadden Arps. Gross says that more than any reforms, the Jack Abramoff corruption scandal has had a chilling effect on his corporate clients.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Now, all the candidates to replace Congressman Tom DeLay as House majority leader are offering various plans to clean up the lobbyingindustry. We're going to examine them this morning with the help of Ken Gross. He's a lawyer at Skadden Arps, a law firm here in Washington. He advises lobbyists in their dealings with lawmakers. Welcome to the program.

Mr. KEN GROSS (Lawyer, Skadden Arps): Thank you, good to be here, Steve.

INSKEEP: I want to start with something that Congressman Shadegg mentioned there. He wants to revoke pensions for Congressmen who are convicted of crimes like bribery, says it has not had any chance to pass yet. Why would that be something that would be difficult to pass?

Mr. GROSS: I don't know why that would be difficult to pass. It seems to me, if someone's committed a serious crime in the performance of their duties, that would be an appropriate penalty.

INSKEEP: Would that be a significant blow to a member of Congress, or a significant threat?

Mr. GROSS: Well, of course, it depends on their personal wherewithal, but it would be, it would take a bite out of them, because anybody who is in a leadership position has probably been in Congress a number of years. But someone who has personal wealth, or perhaps, has not been in very long, then, it is a serious matter.

INSKEEP: Let's talk about some of these other proposals on this list that we've put together here. The other two candidates for a leadership position in the house, Blunt and Boehner, have both said that they would favor a plan that would restrict travel paid for by lobbying firms, which is something that directly relates to the Abramoff scandal. How much do your clients, lobbyists, rely on buying junkets for lawmakers?

Mr. GROSS: Actually, lobbyists are currently restricted from paying for travel. Now, the employer of the lobbyist, the corporation that employs a lobbyist, could pay for the travel. But, and among various interest groups, associations, they are not actually the lobbyists, so they can pay for the travel.

INSKEEP: Which is to say that there's a restriction that is meaningless. These junkets take place.

Mr. GROSS: It has turned out to be relatively meaningless. Some of these trips do provide a forum for various groups to spend some time with members. But I would say it's not critical to a lobbying effort.

INSKEEP: It's a way that you get face time with a lawmaker.

Mr. GROSS: It is a way to get face time. But there's a number of ways of getting face time. Spending time on corporate jets, going to fundraisers, going to other events. It doesn't have to be golf at St. Andrews.

INSKEEP: Here is another proposal. There's already a rule which says members of Congress can get in trouble if they violate a gift ban. They can only accept a gift worth up to $50. This proposal would penalize lobbyists who violate that gift ban by giving too much.

Mr. GROSS: Yes.

INSKEEP: Would that scare your clients?

Mr. GROSS: Well, under the current rules, only the member is subject to penalty, if for a violation of the gift rule, not the donor, unless, of course, it turns out to be a bribe or something like that, like in the Abramoff case. But the truth of the matter is that many groups have programs to comply with these laws. But if there was more enforcement and there were teeth in the law, I think that that would probably help in compliance.

INSKEEP: You mean lobbyists would be less likely to take a chance on themselves getting in some kind of (unintelligible)...

Mr. GROSS: That's right. I've had lobbyists who were very, very strict about the rules, and there are those who say, well, wait a minute, isn't it really just the liability of the member or the staffer; therefore I'm not as concerned.

INSKEEP: Let's ask about another thing here. Some Republican leaders have said that they want to end what is called the K Street Project. This is an effort that was led by Tom DeLay, in which DeLay and other members went to lobbying firms and said, get rid of the Democrats that you've hired. You need to hire Republicans, and you need to be raising money for us. You need to be an arm of the Republican Party. That was largely accomplished, as I understand it. Is it even possible to change that now?

Mr. GROSS: Well, I think that has really been, in large part, the root of a lot of these problems, this K Street Project. And it's not going to be undone overnight. It's maybe not going to be a formal project. But these lobbyists are in place that have been bred by the K Street Project. So this is something that's not going to turn on a dime.

INSKEEP: Some lawmakers also want to end what's called the cooling off period. After you retire from Congress, it takes a while before you are legally allowed to come back and lobby Congress. They want to extend that cooling off period. How would that change things?

Mr. GROSS: I think marginally. The cooling off period, as it currently stands, is basically a one-year prohibition on lobbying Congress. You could lobby the White House, for example. And it only prohibits actual appearances before the legislative body. So you can actually operate behind the scenes during the period of time and sort of direct traffic without making the appearances. So, yes, these things will all have some effect, positive effect, but I think, at bottom, they're marginal.

INSKEEP: You're advising clients, lobbyists under the current rules. Has the scandal already changed the way that your clients are doing business?

Mr. GROSS: Absolutely. I think the scandal itself has had more of an effect than any of these changes in the law. Whether that dissipates over time, I don't know. But certainly, I have been lecturing frequently because of this. People are calling me in to speak. And instead of rolling their eyes at some of these restrictions, they're listening intently.

INSKEEP: Well, Ken Gross, thanks very much.

Mr. GROSS: Sure.

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