Cleaning Up Capitol Hill After Abramoff

Madeleine Brand speaks with NPR senior correspondent Juan Williams about this week's political news, including lobbying reform on Capitol Hill and comments by Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY) on the bribery scandal surrounding GOP lobbyist Jack Abramoff, which compelled Congress to take up lobbying reforms.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This is Day to Day. I'm Madeleine Brand.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

And I'm Alex Chadwick.

Coming up, reflections from two former American hostages released from the U.S. embassy in Tehran, Iran, where they were held prisoner, released 25 years ago today.

BRAND: But first, on Capitol Hill this week the focus was on lobbying reform and by week's end lawmakers from both parties were pushing proposals to change the way Congress does business. And joining us now to talk about those plans and about the rest of the week in Washington is NPR Senior Correspondent and regular Day to Day contributor, Juan Williams. Hi, Juan.

JUAN WILLIAMS reporting:

Hi, Madeleine.

BRAND: So tell us about these proposed reforms.

WILLIAMS: Well, Madeleine, it's pretty much what the editorial writers around the country are describing as an arms race, in terms of reform. You have the Republicans, for example, saying now, let's have no gifts valued more than $20 accepted from lobbyists in Washington. Well, then here come the Democrats who say no, no gifts at any value, zero, nada, zilch, so no dinners, no trips to go golfing in Scotland, no luxury boxes at the basketball games. None of that.

BRAND: And we have some tape here from House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. Let's take a listen.

Representative NANCY PELOSI (Democrat, California): What is important about their list is not what it does do, but what it doesn't do. It doesn't address procedural abuses in the House that Republicans use to implement their culture of corruption.

WILLIAMS: Culture of corruption, that's the byword here, Madeleine, and what you see is that in addition to the idea of not taking gifts from lobbyists, you have Democrats and Republicans saying from now on there's not going to be any job negotiations for sitting members of Congress. If you'll recall Congressman Billy Tauzin of Louisiana was involved in negotiations over what regulations the government could place, for example, on pharmaceutical companies, then he goes on to take a multi-million job as the pharmaceutical companies chief lobbyist here in Washington. There's also conversations about ending the use of no big contracts. That's what got Congressman Randy "Duke" Cunningham in trouble with a contract for a military contractor and it turned out, of course, that he was then taking kickbacks from that company.

BRAND: And Juan, what about these so-called earmarks, pork barrel spending, that John McCain has railed against?

WILLIAMS: Well, that's another big item because what you see is that oftentimes those earmarks get inserted into bills and there's no discussion, no debate, no real awareness of what's going on and as has been pointed out, boy, lobbyists love it. They make big money off those earmarks because companies need small little amendments that allow them to do business in such a way, very profitable, and again, that's getting a lot of attention.

BRAND: Another top democrat also had some harsh words for the Bush Administration this week, Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton. She also raised some eyebrows with a controversial remark. Tell us about that.

WILLIAMS: Well, she said two things that were so interesting. One is that she said that the Bush Administration, this was speaking on Martin Luther King Jr. Day in Harlem, she said the Bush Administration's going to go down as one of the worst in history. But she also said that the House of Representatives has been run like a plantation and, you know, later said that she thought it overall the Republicans were guilty of cronyism and incompetence. This, of course, really sparked lots of angry feelings because race is implicit in the whole comment about plantation and the whole notion of her being on the offensive against President Bush even led the president to later in the week when he was asked whether his wife might one day run for the Senate to say never.

So there's a little bit of tension here. Obviously, she is now gearing up as a potential 2008 candidate. But what you see from Hillary Rodham Clinton is I think a clear push against president Bush, a move to the left that would satisfy some of her base that's been upset about the fact that she's been very reluctant to criticize the president on the war in Iraq and to call for immediate withdrawal of troops.

BRAND: President Bush cannot be happy with the announcement from Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman, a Republican, Arlen Specter, that he's going to hold hearings next month on this whole domestic spying story, the NSA wire taps. So what's going on there?

WILLIAMS: The White House is very concerned about it. In fact, even as we speak Democrats in the House are having their own set of, kind of, hearings if you will, it's not official, just Democrats, the opposition is simply having people in and they're having in people who are critics. The White House is not participating in this, but they're going to participate, in fact, Attorney General Gonzalez is now scheduled to speak before the Senate Judiciary Committee headed by Arlen Specter when they open hearings on this issue in February. So, you're going to have this whole discussion about whether or not the president was right to authorize wire tapping of both domestic and international conversations that may have been linked to terrorism.

BRAND: NPR Senior Correspondent and regular Day to Day contributor, Juan Williams. Thanks a lot.

WILLIAMS: All the best, Madeleine.

(Soundbite of music)

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