Lobbying Reform? Not Likely

Lobbying reforms offered this week by both parties won't do much to change life on K Street or Capitol Hill. The odor of influence buying will continue to linger in American politics.

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JOHN YDSTIE, host:

The lobbying reforms unveiled by both Democrats and Republicans this week were announced with great hoopla. But they offer little hope for real change in Washington's political money game. An increase from one year to two when lawmakers turn lobbyists are barred from directly contacting their former colleagues isn't particularly meaningful. After all, from the moment those lawmakers land on K Street here in Washington, they will still be able to tell others in their firms which congressperson is key to moving their bill along, or which senator needs attention.

As for limiting the number of meals offered by lobbyists even in this cynical era, is it really likely that lawmakers are changing their votes for a thick T-bone? Banning lawmakers from accepting privately-funded travel has more potential value. When lobbyists pay for a trip it allows them precious face-time with lawmakers, which is far more valuable than the price of a chartered jet. They can then make the case for eliminating an irritating regulation or advancing a Bill that favors one company or industry. But the travel ban doesn't include travel to fundraisers.

So a senator could still fly free on someone else's dime to his own fundraiser and then, spend a weekend say, at a ski resort, schussing the deep powder with generous lobbyists, getting to know them and their concerns over drinks next to the lodge fireplace. Republican Senator Conrad Burns of Montana is having just this kind of fundraiser at the private Yellowstone Club in Montana in March. The invitation sent to lobbyists, says the cost is $4,000 for PACs and $2,000 for individuals. Both Republicans and Democrats do this kind of thing, but this is the same Senator Burns who received nearly $150,000.00 from the disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff and Mr. Abramoff's clients, over the past five years. Mr. Burns admits helping one of those clients, a rich Indian Tribe; get $3 million in federal funds for a school.

It all begs the question, is there any campaign contribution given or accepted, without the expectation of something in return? And it suggests that, short of public financing of Congressional campaigns, the odor of influence-buying will continue to linger in American politics.

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