Molly Ivins On The “Lobby Reform Bill” Scam

May 4, 2006

From The Star-Telegram:

Either the "lobby reform bill" is the contemptible, cheesy, shoddy piece of hypocrisy that it appears to be … or the Republicans have a sense of humor.

The "lobby reform" bill does show, one could argue, a sort of cheerful, defiant, flipping-the-bird-at-the-public attitude that could pass for humor. You have to admit that calling this an "ethics bill' requires brass bravura.

House Republicans returned last week from a two-week recess prepared to vote for "a relatively tepid ethics bill," as The Washington Post put it, because they said their constituents rarely mentioned the issue.

Forget all that talk back in January when Jack Abramoff was indicted. What restrictions on meals and gifts from lobbyists? More golfing trips! According to Rep. Nancy L. Johnson of Connecticut, former chairwoman of the House ethics committee, passage of the bill will have no political consequences "because people are quite convinced that the rhetoric of reform is just political."

Where could they have gotten that idea? Rep. David Hobson, R-Ohio, told the Post, "We panicked, and we let the media get us panicked."

By George, here's the right way to think of it: The entire Congress lies stinking in open corruption, but they can't let the media panic them. They're actually proud of not cleaning it up.

The House bill passed a procedural vote last week, 216-207, and it is scheduled for floor debate and a final vote today — which gives citizens who don't like being conned a chance to speak. Now is the time for a little Cain-raising.

Chellie Pingree of Common Cause said, "This legislation is so weak it's embarrassing." Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21 and a longtime worker in reformist vineyards, said: "This bill is based on the premise that you can fool all of the people all of the time. This is an attempt at one of the greatest legislative scams that I have seen in 30 years of working on these issues."

Come on, people, get mad. You deserve to be treated with contempt if you let them get away with this.

I'm sorry that all these procedural votes seem so picayune, and I know the cost of gas and health insurance are more immediate worries. But it is precisely the corruption of Congress by big money that allows the oil and insurance industries to get away with these fantastic rip-offs.

Watching Washington be taken over by these little sleaze merchants is not only expensive and repulsive — it is destroying America, destroying any sense we ever had that we're a nation, not 298 million individuals cheating to get ahead.

I'm sorry that these creeps in Congress have so little sense of what they're supposed to be about that they think it's fine to sneer at ethics. But they work for us. It's our job to keep them under control until we can replace them. Time to get up off our rears and take some responsibility. Let them hear from you.

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House Lobby “Reform” Bill Barely Passes

May 4, 2006

From The New York Times:

The House narrowly passed a bill on Wednesday intended to restore public trust in Congress by reshaping the relationship between lawmakers and lobbyists. But Democrats denounced the measure as a sham, and 20 Republicans voted against it.

The measure, which passed 217 to 213, is the first lobbying and ethics legislation since 1995, the year after Republicans took control of the House. Republicans have been promising to pass lobbying legislation since January. But the measure proved extremely divisive, so much so that the bill nearly died last week in a Republican feud over earmarks, the pet projects that are often slipped into bills at lobbyists' behest.

The new bill would require lobbyists to disclose more of their activities, increase financial penalties for violations and require lawmakers and their aides to attend ethics training.

It also aims to discourage earmarks by requiring House members who write spending bills to disclose them, a move lauded by fiscal conservatives who complain that earmarks waste taxpayer money and drive up the cost of legislation.

But the measure falls short of what Republican leaders promised after the scandal involving the lobbyist Jack Abramoff rocked the Capitol in January. The chief Republican architect of the bill, Representative David Dreier of California, the House Rules Committee chairman, conceded that he wished that the measure "were stronger than it is."

But Mr. Dreier also called it a "very, very strong package," and promised that it was just the beginning of Republican efforts to clean up Congress. The bill now goes to reconciliation with a stronger version passed by the Senate. The leaders in both chambers hope to do that as quickly as possible.

"Our aim, our goal, is a Congress that is effective, a Congress that is ethical and a Congress that is worthy of the public trust," Mr. Dreier told colleagues on the House floor. He added: "After we pass this bill, let me tell you what is next on our agenda — more reform. The Republican Party is the party of reform. The drive for reform never stops."

Republicans have been trying to adopt the mantle of reform since January, when Mr. Abramoff, who wined and dined lawmakers with lavish meals at his Washington restaurants and golf outings to Scotland, agreed to cooperate in a corruption inquiry. The plea, coupled with the resignation of a Republican House member, Randy Cunningham of California, on bribery charges, gave Democrats fodder for their campaign theme of a Republican "culture of corruption."

After Mr. Abramoff's plea, Mr. Dreier and Speaker J. Dennis Hastert endorsed the idea of barring members of Congress and their aides from accepting trips paid with private money. But the bill the House passed Wednesday would not ban the trips. Rather, it calls for the House ethics committee to draft trip rules by June 15. Before then, privately financed trips will require advance approval from two-thirds of the ethics panel.

Unlike the measure approved by the Senate, the bill does not address the "revolving door," the Capitol Hill term for lawmakers and aides who leave Congress to become lobbyists. The Senate bill aims to rein in that practice by requiring lawmakers and senior aides to refrain from lobbying former colleagues for two years, instead of the current one year.

The Senate bill would also bar lobbyists from giving gifts and meals to lawmakers. The House bill keeps the current limit of $50 for gifts or meals.

"We are cleaning up Congress the way teenagers clean up their bedrooms," said Representative Brian Baird, Democrat of Washington. "And the result will be the same mess."

Eight Democrats voted for the measure, which had led to deep splits among House Republicans. To address that problem, the leadership agreed to work in conference to extend restrictions on earmarks beyond spending bills to all legislation.

Among the 20 Republicans who voted against it was the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, Representative F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. of Wisconsin. Others, particularly those facing re-election fights, agreed with Democrats that the measure was too weak. They included Representative Christopher Shays of Connecticut, who supported a Democratic alternative that would have banned lawmakers' use of corporate jets and imposed the two-year revolving-door restriction.

Mr. Shays said after the vote that "the Democrats did a much better job of presenting a bill," and took aim at the new majority leader, Representative John A. Boehner of Ohio, who has been lukewarm to restricting travel.

"This is not John Boehner's forte," Mr. Shays said. "This is not something he believes in."

Mr. Boehner, a staunch opponent of earmarks, pronounced himself elated at the outcome.

"Trust between the American people in this Congress is very important, and this is the first major step in rebuilding that trust," he said.

It is now up to the House and Senate Republican leaders to appoint negotiators to reconcile the differences in their bills. Mr. Hastert said he expected to do so next week. A spokesman for the Senate majority leader, Bill Frist, said Mr. Frist would also like to move quickly.

With polls showing public approval ratings for Congress at historic lows, Republicans are eager to have a bill on President Bush's desk long before the November elections.

"The sooner the better," Mr. Boehner said.