The Politics of Lobbying Reform Many lawmakers genuinely want to reform the system that has been exploited by the likes of former lobbyist Jack Abramoff. But the investigation and scandal are just too good a political issue, at least for Democrats, to let go of too quickly.
NPR logo The Politics of Lobbying Reform

The Politics of Lobbying Reform

As is often the case on Capitol Hill, there is a delicate dance being performed when lawmakers take on the issue of lobbying reform.

On the one hand, many members genuinely desire to reform the system that has been exploited by the likes of Jack Abramoff, the disgraced lobbyist facing sentencing for fraud and bribery in a federal probe of influence peddling. On the other hand, the investigation and scandal are just too good a political issue, at least for Democrats, to let go of too quickly.

But when it comes to making some kind of policy in response, this is that rare moment when a problem can truly be called bipartisan. Republicans across the spectrum -- from Pennsylvania's conservative Sen. Rick Santorum to Maine's moderate Sen. Susan Collins to Arizona's maverick Sen. John McCain -- all agree that tighter reins on lobbying are an idea that's time has come. All three spoke at a hearing before Collins' Homeland Security and Governmental Reform Committee this week and endorsed the need to change the way business is done in Washington.

Santorum once again invoked his triumphs in the early 1990s as a backbencher in the House and one of the "Gang of Seven" who worked to expose those taking advantage of lax safeguards to overdraw their accounts at the House post office.

Collins has adroitly used her power as committee chair in recent days, revisiting the Bush administration's mishandling of Hurricane Katrina story and now taking the lead on lobby reform. She said Congress can't tackle the big issues facing the nation without trust from the public, which she said was "perilously low," in part because of the stories about lobbying influence.

McCain, who has rarely met a reform issue he didn't like, said Congress needed to act quickly, that "the urgency of this is dictated by the view of the American people as to how we do business here in Washington." It's not good, McCain added, "and we need to fix it and we need to fix it very quickly."

Democrats too, at the hearing at least, struck a tone of: "This is strong medicine we all need to take." The committee's ranking Democrat, Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, said "the status quo stinks and cries out to us to lead the way in clearing up the air." As a witness before the committee, Richard Durbin of Illinois, the Senate's second highest-ranking Democrat, said "many Republicans in Congress detest dishonest enterprises as much as Democrats (do)."

But while everyone played nice and had their rise-above-partisanship hats on for the hearing, don't think for a moment that Democratic political consultants aren't drafting ad copy laced with references to the "culture of corruption" for this fall's midterm election campaigns.

Take Santorum, for instance, as a prospective target. Already the Democrats' biggest target in the fall, Santorum was given the high-visibility task of heading up the GOP lobby reform efforts. In making this assignment, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist might have been merely acknowledging Santorum's past association with reform. Indeed, the issue might conceivably help his political prospects at home this fall, but it's a two-edged sword. Democrats are more than happy to point out that Santorum served until recently as the Senate GOP's liaison with K Street, the Washington boulevard where many lobbyists hang their shingles. When close contact with that community was the order of the day, Santorum led the way.

And then there's Sen. Conrad Burns, the Montana Republican who has tried to give away most of the nearly $150,000 funneled to his campaign coffers by Abramoff and associates. Burns tried to turn it over to Indian tribes in his state, only to have his offer spurned as a form of gratuitous charity. Democrats vying for their party's nomination against Burns this fall have already begun using the issue.

This week one of the old lions of the Senate on the Republican side, Pete Domenici of New Mexico, warned his Democratic colleagues that they could make the lobbying reform issue so political that the chamber would be unable to pass a reform bill. And if he is right, at least some Democrats may not mind. Some in the party would like to see this issue linger until the fall so that it remains fresh in voters' minds.

Republicans, on the other hand, can be sure to show unusual diligence in pursuit of reform this winter, intent on getting a new law enacted and moving on to less toxic subjects.