Lobbying Reform Bill Won't Ban Gifts

A measure is before Congress that House Republicans hope will scrub their image after the scandals of lobbyist Jack Abramoff and Congressman Randy Duke Cunningham. But the bill will still let lobbyists give lawmakers gifts, and even jobs after their term is up.

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Next week the House is expected to take up a measure changing the way lawmakers and lobbyists interact with each other.

A key vote allowing lawmakers to take up the bill narrowly passed yesterday. Still, the measure is being criticized for failing to do enough, as NPR's Brian Naylor reports.

BRIAN NAYLOR reporting:

It was a hard-fought victory for a bill that even its sponsors admit will need to get significantly tougher if it's to win final passage. Critics call it a sham.

The House's answer to the Abramoff lobbying scandal and the imprisonment of former Republican Congressman Randy Duke Cunningham after a bribery conviction does much less than reformers had hoped. It calls on lobbyists to report their activities four times a year instead of twice, temporarily bans lawmakers from taking privately sponsored trips, and takes away the retirement benefits of lawmakers who, like Cunningham, have been convicted of a felony.

California Republican David Dreier sponsored the legislation.

Representative DAVID DREIER (Republican, California): To ensure that the tragic problems of corruption that we have witnessed will never happen again. That is our goal. I believe this legislation provides bold, strong, dynamic reforms.

NAYLOR: Opponents charge the bill does nothing of the sort. They say it doesn't ban gifts from lobbyists, does little to stop the revolving door of lawmakers-turned-lobbyists, and lacks sufficient enforcement.

Connecticut Republican Christopher Shays sharply criticized his GOP leaders.

Representative CHRISTOPHER SHAYS (Republican, Connecticut): I happen to believe we're losing our moral authority to lead this place. It's been over a decade since my party took over the majority, and I feel like we've forgotten why we got here.

(Soundbite of applause)

Republicans were united on three common issues, and one of them was reforming Congress.

NAYLOR: That applause came from Democrats, who, like David Obey, of Wisconsin charged the measure is a joke.

Representative DAVID OBEY (Democrat, Wisconsin): The public wants us to pass significant House reform. Instead, this legislation before us, in my humble view, constitutes consumer fraud masquerading as lobby reform.

NAYLOR: But the biggest obstacle standing in the bill's way was an intramural dispute. Republican members of the appropriations committee, who write Congress's spending bills, opposed part of the measure curtailing so-called earmarks. They're the provisions that members often insert in secret to put projects in their districts.

Conservatives, like Jeff Flake, of Arizona, insisted the secret earmarks be stopped, saying they're being abused by members of the appropriations committee, like Cunningham.

Representative JEFF FLAKE (Republican, Arizona): When you have one of your members in jail starting a term, others being investigated, but you still take a position that we don't need to reform this, that's just what's unbelievable.

NAYLOR: But appropriations committee members argued they were being unfairly singled out. They pointed out that earmarks occur on lots of legislation, not just spending bills.

When GOP committee members threatened to vote no, the bill was pulled from the floor. But after an hour-long meeting with House speaker Dennis Hastert, the appropriators were back on board. Committee Chairman Jerry Lewis of California, said Hastert promised that when the House measure is combined with the Senate's version, the final product will limit earmarks on all bills. That, said Lewis, was what he needed to hear.

Representative JERRY LEWIS (Republican, California): It's not very often that the speaker spends that much time with appropriations members. We don't put ourselves in this position very often. It was important for me to have the Speaker know that our members were serious about this issue, and he was very responsive.

NAYLOR: Assuming the House measure is approved next week, members of both chambers will sit down to try to work out a final bill. As they get closer to the November election, Republican leaders of the House and Senate know that public opinion of Congress is in freefall, and that cleaning up corruption is one of voters' biggest concerns.

Brian Naylor, NPR News, the Capital.

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