Democrats Present Lobbying Reform Plans

Democrats offer proposals to reform the rules under which lobbying takes place. The move comes after Republicans in the House and Senate laid out their own plans Tuesday. The proposals come in the wake of the Jack Abramoff scandal, which threatens GOP control of Congress this year.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELLE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michelle Norris. The House of Representatives won't be back in session for another two weeks, but already there's a flurry of activity on Capitol Hill as Democrats and Republicans come up with proposals to reform the way lobbyists interact with lawmakers. Today, Democrats unveiled their ideas. Republicans put theirs forward yesterday.

Coming up, a talk with the Republican taking charge of lobby reform in the House. First, NPR's Brian Naylor reports on the Democratic proposals and how the differences may be less important than the ability to score political points.

BRIAN NAYLOR reporting:

Democrats announced their proposed changes to the lobbying rules in the Library of Congress. The event had all the trappings of a campaign rally. Dozens of rank-and-file lawmakers and their leaders marched into the marble-walled great hall to the sounds of stirring music. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid said his party was unveiling what he called the honest leadership and open government act.

Senator HARRY REID (Democrat, Nevada): Today we as Democrats are declaring our commitment to change, change to a government as good and as honest as the people that we serve.

NAYLOR: The guilty plea of lobbyist Jack Abramoff and the continuing investigation by the Justice Department had helped keep Texas Republican Tom DeLay from reclaiming his leadership post and cost Ohio Republican Bob Ney his committee chairmanship. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi charged that an ethical cloud hangs over the Capitol.

Representative NANCY PELOSI (Democrat, California): Yesterday House Republican leaders unveiled a vague and insufficient set of so-called reforms. What is important about their list is not what it does do, but what it doesn't do. It doesn't kill the K Street Project. It doesn't address procedural abuses in the House that Republicans used to implement their culture of corruption.

NAYLOR: In fact, the Democratic reforms track closely what Republicans have proposed. They, too, would bar former lawmakers who become lobbyists from the House floor. Like Republicans, Democrats would extend from one year to two the amount of time a former lawmaker must wait before he can lobby his one-time colleagues. Democrats would also ban lobbyists from buying lawmakers meals and paying for trips. They do take the GOP-proposed gift ban a step further and would ban all gifts.

The biggest difference in the proposals are the institutional changes Democrats are proposing. Pelosi wants conference committees between the House and Senate opened and last-minute provisions in legislation abolished.

Representative PELOSI: It would end the dead of night special interest provisions that turn bills into special interest giveaways. Lawmakers must have the opportunity to read every bill before they vote on it. It's common sense.

NAYLOR: While Democrats see the lobbying scandal at the Capitol as a chance to score some political points in an election year, some outside reform groups see the proposed changes as meaningful. Chellie Pingree, president of Common Cause, says there is a caveat.

Ms. CHELLIE PINGREE (President and CEO, Common Cause): Our biggest worry is that if there's not a stricter enforcement mechanism, it's just more rules. And the challenge is that many of these things were against the rules, against the law, prior to the Abramoff scandal and no one was enforcing the rules.

NAYLOR: Pingree wants to see an office of public integrity established outside of Congress to enforce the lobbying rules. She also warns that unless Congress changes the way lawmakers' campaigns are financed, there is never going to be real change in the culture in Washington.

Brian Naylor, NPR News, the Capitol.

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