True Lobbying Reform

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Monday, February 13, 2006
After many months of watching its public image take a shellacking as a result of the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal, Congress is finally starting to move on lobby reform. With all the enthusiasm of a convert to the cause, it is now awash in ideas for curtailing the practices that have so embarrassed the Capitol. 

Pretty much every aspect of lobbyists' relations with Capitol Hill is up for debate. There are bids to rein in, or even abolish, the privately sponsored travel of members of Congress. There are efforts to ban or drastically restrict lobbyists' gifts to office-holders, or at least to disclose them fully. There are proposals to lengthen the amount of time between when a member of Congress or high-ranking staffer leaves Capitol Hill and when he or she can start lobbying. And there are demands that Congress create an Office of Public Integrity with the ability to investigate possible breaches of lobby laws and with the power to refer what it finds to congressional ethics committees and the Department of Justice. 

These are worthwhile ideas. Yet even if we enact them all, we will at best have skirted the real issue. 

Don't get me wrong. You have to start somewhere. Banning trips by members of Congress that are paid for by private interests, for instance, makes plain common sense. If a trip is in the public interest, then the government should pay for it. If it's not, then why risk the appearance of a too-cozy relationship with some special interest? 

Similarly, full disclosure of all lobbying activities is a simple necessity. 

And if we're going to have such laws on the books, then creating some sort of enforcement body with sharp teeth is vital. We have plenty of lobbying laws already, but they are so rarely enforced that lobbyists consider them a joke. If we're going to have rules, let's enforce them. 

Still, the heart of the matter is not travel or gifts or even enforcement. 

The issue that underlies all is money. Simply put, politicians who want to be re-elected are desperate for money, because elections today are extraordinarily expensive. On the other side, lobbyists just as desperately want to influence legislation. And the tool they have at their disposal is the same substance that politicians crave. 

Lobbyists have endless ways of pumping money into the system. It's not just the growing amounts of money they spend each year to influence the federal government — an estimated $2.4 billion in 2003 alone. It's also their expanding role in filling a candidate's campaign coffers. They fund campaign events. They solicit and bundle large campaign contributions from their clients. They underwrite "independent" campaigns targeting members' campaign opponents. They even serve as politicians' fund-raising treasurers. And the amounts at stake are growing, not shrinking. 

So what does this mean for lobbying reform? It means that there are limits to what it can accomplish. We may be able to stop a lobbyist from buying dinner for a member of Congress, but we are not going to stop him from throwing a lavish fund-raising dinner. We can prohibit a lobbyist from buying a member a fancy tie or a bronze sculpture as a gift, but we cannot stop her from collecting and distributing donations from players in the bronze-sculpture or tie-making industries. 

There is no law, in other words, that can keep these two powerful forces — politicians seeking money, and lobbyists seeking influence — apart. 

What can we do? To begin, we ought to resolve to constrain and expose the relationship. Sunshine is a powerful disinfectant, and disclosing the details of members' encounters with lobbyists — who is involved; whom they represent; what they discussed; how much was spent; how much money was raised for the politicians who are lobbied — can make a difference. 

Yet we need to go beyond that. Making sure that the public knows about every dollar spent to affect legislation — through campaign contributions, grassroots lobbying and public relations campaigns — is crucial. So is placing limits on how campaign money can be collected, with constraints on what lobbyists can raise and distribute. We should not try to wring lobbyists out of the campaign system — after all, they have a right to perform their responsibilities — but surely we can keep their activities within bounds. 

And finally, just as I argued above that it is in the public's self-interest for the government to fund congressional travel, so I believe it is in our interest to start moving toward some kind of public financing of congressional campaigns in this country, as we already do for presidential campaigns. 

Let's be clear what we're talking about: the integrity of our representative democracy. We are in trouble when money can buy access that ordinary citizens cannot get. We are in trouble when ordinary citizens come to think of the legislative process as a game tilted against them. 

Until we can change the culture of money and politics in this country, we are sure to have more scandals, and we will have to work even harder to restore the public confidence that underpins our system of government. 

(Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.)