- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 22, 2006

Lobbying reform has become the hot issue here as lawmakers scramble to repair the political damage from the influence-peddling scandal that has slashed Congress’ approval score to its lowest level in years.

With the likelihood lobbyist Jack Abramoff will point fingers at lawmakers in both parties who dispensed legislative favors for him, congressional proposals were coming out of the woodwork last week. It is now very likely some tough reforms will be passed before the end of February — a fast turnaround for an institution slow to pass anything.

But it would be wrong to think such newfound haste is based on Congress’ embarrassment over a scandal whose payoffs and perks has corroded and corrupted the nation’s legislature. The high-speed push for reform, particularly among Republican leaders, is driven by fear a disgusted, angry electorate will turn on lawmakers in November’s midterm elections. It is still too early, but early polling numbers signal the natives are restless and may be ready to do a little political housecleaning.

The Gallup Poll last week showed a growing majority of Americans by a margin of 47-42 percent now believe most members of Congress do not deserve re-election. The percentage of people who say most members should be re-elected “is as low as it has been in more than a decade,” said Gallup chief pollster Frank Newport.

Ominously, this is the lowest re-elect number Gallup has seen since it first asked this question in November 1994, when only 39 percent said, “Yes, most members should be re-elected.” That was the year Republicans took control of the House after 40 years of Democratic dominance.

So Republican leaders in both chambers aren’t taking any chances, producing some of the toughest rules and lobbying reforms in modern memory, including:

A ban on privately funded travel to end lavish lobbyist-paid trips to the pleasure palaces of the world on so-called “fact-finding” missions.

Slashes in allowable gifts to $20 or less.

An end to House floor and gym access by former members of Congress who become lobbyists.

A requirement that former lawmakers wait two years after leaving office before they can lobby Congress.

An end to congressional pensions for any lawmaker found guilty of a felony related to his legislative responsibilities.

Democratic reforms are similar in many ways, but would go further in other areas, totally banning gifts from lobbyists. More important, their reforms would go beyond lobbying to how Congress and the committee system work and would:

Require members of Congress, and even executive branch officials, to disclose any negotiations for private-sector jobs.

Require House and Senate negotiators trying to iron out differences in bills to meet in open session and only when all members of the conference panel are there and have the opportunity to offer amendments.

The latter reform would not only prevent Republican lawmakers from meeting in private sessions to agree on disputed bills, it would give Democrats another weapon to block bills from coming to the floor for final approval just by not showing up.

Other bills would impose stricter rules on all lobbyist contacts with members. Public interest organizations say these would onerously burden their work.

Democratic Sen. Russell Feingold of Wisconsin and Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona would require filing of quarterly reports documenting every phone call and meeting of a lobbyist. “This would mean filing out forms for thousands of calls and face-to-face meetings by lobbyists and thousands more by our members who come to Washington to visit with lawmakers to present their views on legislation,” a veteran business lobbyist complained.

“At some point this rubs up against the constitutionally protected right of all Americans and the people who represent their interests to petition the government and present their grievances,” another lobbyist told me.

But none of this may matter in the legislative frenzy to crack down on lobbying and end all-expenses-paid travel to costly and distant resorts to prove Congress is getting back in order.

One needed reform not mentioned much in the proposals: a ban on wasteful, pork barrel, earmarked provisions that have fattened the federal budget by tens of billions of dollars each year. Lobbyists push many, if not most, of these provisions.

It remains to be seen how Republican leaders deal with all this and if it will restore Congress’ dismal disapproval scores.

While Gallup’s failing grade for lawmakers is cause for concern, the polling firm notes 60 percent of Americans in its latest survey still say their representative “should be re-elected.”

Donald Lambro, chief political correspondent of The Washington Times, is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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