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Delayed reform

April 05, 2006

JACK ABRAMOFF WAS EVERY REPUBLICAN'S favorite lobbyist. Tom DeLay was every lobbyist's favorite Republican. Today, thanks to their own corruption, Abramoff is off to serve a 70-month jail term for fraud, and DeLay is walking away from what he loves best -- campaigning for his congressional seat. Stung by a money-laundering indictment, multiple ethics lapses and the inconvenient fact that several of his former staffers have been implicated in the Abramoff affair, the former House majority leader from Texas is making a graceless exit from the political mess he helped create.

You'd think such a backdrop would inspire Congress to crack down on lobbying abuse. Instead, the Senate voted last week for a tepid bill that purports to reform lobbying rules. The 90-8 vote for passage alone should call its value into question.

If the bill is signed into law, legislators would no longer be able to take gifts or meals from lobbyists, but free or discounted trips on private jets (worth thousands of dollars) would still be OK, if disclosed. The new rules still would allow senators to attach "earmarks" -- special funding requests, sometimes pushed by gift-wielding lobbyists -- to bills (though some now would be open to challenges). By a vote of 67 to 30, senators crushed a motion to set up an independent office to investigate ethics violations.

Indeed, with the exception of a few rules requiring greater disclosure, and procedural tweaks that would prevent senators from placing "anonymous holds" on legislation, the lawmakers wouldn't have to change their behavior much at all. One of the most significant new requirements applies not to members of Congress but to lobbying groups, which now would have to describe more thoroughly their dealings with the legislative branch. Their reports would be made available in a publicly accessible database. Another rule applies not to senators but to ex-senators, who would be prevented from lobbying their former colleagues for two years instead of one.

It's hard to see how any senator could think such "reform" proves real commitment to change or real understanding of why ethics lapses are a problem in the first place: because members of Congress should not be for sale.

For a time, there was a shred of hope that the House version of the bill would pick up the slack. Perhaps responding to the scandals swirling around DeLay and Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R-Rancho Santa Fe), in January, Rep. David Dreier (R-San Dimas) proposed legislation that would have banned free travel outright. Unfortunately, many of his colleagues in the House grumbled that such rules would have proved too restrictive, and the bill has been scaled back to ban travel only for the next year.

At least the ongoing legal woes of Abramoff, who still faces sentencing on other charges, are likely to implicate members of Congress. As Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who voted against the Senate bill, has pointed out, the possibility of more indictments may make some members of Congress more amenable to tougher legislation. Political flameouts such as DeLay's won't hurt the cause either.

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