Lobbying Reform Proposal Attracts Skeptics

Since the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal broke, the GOP has promised to reform rules on lobbying. House Republicans introduced some reform proposals Thursday. But the reforms face criticism from inside and outside the party.

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One of the highest priorities for the Republican leaders in Congress has been reforming the rules governing how lawmakers interact with lobbyists. Spurred on by the Jack Abramoff scandal and the conviction of former Congressman Randy Duke Cunningham for bribery, Republican leaders promise quick action. Yesterday, House Republicans introduced a package of reform proposals, which is being skeptically viewed by those inside and outside the party.

NPR's Brian Naylor reports.

BRIAN NAYLOR: After a brief burst of modest changes, including barring former lawmakers turned lobbyists from the House floor and gym, the pace of lobby reform noticeably slowed. A Senate reform bill was pulled from the floor this week to make way for the budget and it's not clear when, if ever, it will return for consideration. On the House side, deliberations went behind closed doors.

The proposal that emerged yesterday would, among other things, prohibit lawmakers from taking privately funded trips till the end of the year. That would give the Ethics Committee time to determine what kinds of trips should and shouldn't be allowed.

Republican David Dreier of California is author of the proposal.

DAVID DREIER: We've seen major abuse of privately funded travel. Junkets, I don't even like to think about some of these trips and what they've done in the name of being members of Congress.

NAYLOR: But many lawmakers are already opposing the travel moratorium.

JOEL HEFLEY: I mean, this is just being silly, I think.

NAYLOR: Colorado Republican Joel Hefley is a former chairman of the House Ethics Committee.

HEFLEY: So, to me, it is the abuse of the privately funded trips, the $71,000 golf trips, you know, that maybe you do a little something official but mainly it's to play golf and enjoy yourself, that's what we need to crack down on.

NAYLOR: Hefley says there are many legitimate reasons for taking privately funded trips. Tennessee Republican Zack Wamp agrees.

ZACK WAMP: We don't want lobbyists to be involved in paying for travel of members or to attend the trip with the members and so, disconnect lobbyists from travel. But if we just have a complete travel ban that says that members can't go deliver a commencement at a university, if the trip is paid for by the university, that's obviously nonsensical to me.

NAYLOR: The GOP proposal also calls for more frequent disclosure by lobbyists of what they do and their campaign contributions. And it requires lawmakers to notify the Ethics Committee within five days if they begin talks about salary with prospective, future employers.

Wamp says reforms are needed, but he urges caution.

WAMP: I always compare the United States House of Representatives, because that's where I serve, to like a church building committee. A bunch of well-intended people who get together have the capability of making things worse if we're not careful.

NAYLOR: While Republican Dryer reached out to Democrats to co-sponsor his measure, none would do so. In this election year Democrats plan to use what they charge is a GOP culture of corruption as a campaign issue.

Democrat Louise Slaughter of New York dismisses the Republican proposal as reform light.

LUIS SLAUGHTER: I mean, you know, we were really going to have some great reform package coming out of the Republicans. Then we got the can't go to the gym and can't go on the floor, and they assured us that that was not the end of it. I'm assuming this is the end of it.

NAYLOR: The reform proposals have divided not only Democrats and Republicans, but also GOP leaders. The new House Majority Leader, John Boehner, was absent from a news conference earlier this week when the reforms were discussed by House Speaker Dennis Hastert, among others. Boehner dismissed reports of a rift, noting this is a very difficult process that involves harmonizing the views of a family of 435 members.

Brian Naylor, NPR News, the Capitol.

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