House Weighs Revoking Some Lobbyist Privileges

The House of Representatives votes on what Republicans call the first step in the process of lobbying reform. The measure takes the mostly symbolic act of barring former lawmakers-turned-lobbyists from the House floor and gym.

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Today, the House of Representatives overwhelmingly approved what Republicans call the first step in the process of lobbying reform. The measure takes the mostly symbolic act of barring former lawmakers turned lobbyists from the House floor and gym. NPR's Brian Naylor reports.

BRIAN NAYLOR reporting:

There was overwhelming support for the rules change, but many on both sides of the aisle said it was at best an incomplete effort at reform, and at worst, irrelevant. Massachusetts Democrat Marty Meehan said barring lobbyists from the House floor and gym will not stop them from in fact writing legislation. Meehan referred to K Street, the Washington boulevard where many lobbyists hang their shingles.

Representative MARTY MEEHAN (Democrat, Massachusetts): K Street has become Congress' back office. That's where the bills are written and the deals are made. Lobbyists from the energy companies wrote the energy bill to increase their already excessive profits. And lobbyists from the pharmaceutical industry wrote the prescription drug bill that actually makes it illegal for the federal government to buy drugs in bulk.

NAYLOR: Meehan's Democratic colleague from Massachusetts, Barney Frank, belittled the reform.

Representative BARNEY FRANK (Democrat, Massachusetts): I'm one of those who talked about in Washington a vast right-wing conspiracy. It now seems clear to me we have instead had a vast right-wing kleptocracy. And putting people out of the gym is not even a beginning of dealing seriously with that problem.

NAYLOR: California Republican David Dreier, who is point man for the Republicans' lobby reform efforts, defended the ban and said the GOP majority takes the issue seriously.

Representative DAVID DREIER (Republican, California): The Republican Party has been and continues to be the party of reform. We are committed, with this first step that we are taking today, with this package that addresses something that is just not right. Former members of Congress who are registered lobbyists should not have access to the floor of the House of Representatives. And that's something that we're going to do. It's not a Band-Aid.

NAYLOR: But even some Republicans were not satisfied. Michael Oxley of Ohio said the House gym, also known as the Wellness Center, could still welcome former members who had been convicted of a crime, as long as they weren't lobbyists. That was an apparent reference to former Republican lawmaker Randy Duke Cunningham.

Representative MICHAEL OXLEY (Republican, Ohio): It basically says if you are a former member/lobbyist, you are no longer welcome in the Wellness Center. You can just go ahead and clean out your locker. But if you are a convicted felon and not a former member/lobbyist, you can participate in the Wellness Center. It seems to me rather incongruous and rather upside down.

NAYLOR: Republicans are expected to unveil further reforms aimed at distancing themselves from Cunningham and convicted former lobbyist Jack Abramoff. But, as Arkansas Democrat Vic Snyder pointed out in today's debate, it will be difficult to close off all access to lawmakers by lobbyists who are themselves former lawmakers.

Representative VIC SNYDER (Democrat, Arkansas): They have access to the members' dining room, where only members, and I have been lobbied at the members dining room. They have access to memorial services. I have been actually lobbied at the memorial service for a former member that had passed away.

NAYLOR: Democrats in the House and Senate are working on their own proposals in the belief that this is, as Connecticut Senator Joseph Lieberman put it, a once in a generation opportunity to adopt genuine and far-reaching reform.

Brian Naylor, NPR News, the Capitol.

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