Advertisement
YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Soft on sleaze?

May 15, 2006

THE BELATED RELEASE LAST WEEK of Secret Service logs showing that disgraced former lobbyist Jack Abramoff indeed visited the White House ends an almost comical attempt by the Bush administration to dissociate itself from the admitted K Street felon. But the administration isn't alone in its Abramoff denial. In passing separate "lobbying reform" bills, both houses of Congress have done too little to address the corrupting coziness between legislators and lobbyists that Abramoff came to symbolize.

Fortunately, a House-Senate conference committee charged with reconciling the two bills still could produce something that is more than the sum of its imperfect parts. If the committee doesn't, challengers in this fall's congressional elections will be able to argue, fairly, that incumbents are soft on sleaze.

The Senate's pallid version of lobbying reform, passed in March, contains one significant response to the wining and dining of elected officials: a blanket ban on gifts and meals paid for by lobbyists. But the Senate failed to do away with congressional trips paid for by private interests, though they would require advance Ethics Committee approval.

The House bill, passed earlier this month, is better in some respects and worse in others. It does rein in congressional travel paid for by special interests but -- laughably -- only until June 15. And even during that narrow window of restraint, House members could wing their way out of Washington on somebody else's tab if two-thirds of the Ethics Committee approved the trip.

The Senate bill is tougher on members of Congress and senior aides who whirl through the revolving door between government and the private sector, increasing to two years the waiting period before they could lobby their former colleagues. The House bill preserves the current one-year "blackout" period, though it adds a requirement that departing members be informed by letter of current restrictions.

The conference committee needs to preserve and strengthen the positive features of both bills -- such as fuller disclosure of lobbying activities and of the pork-heavy pet projects known as earmarks -- while opting for the strongest possible regulation of goodies such as gifts and free travel.

Defenders of the cozy status quo argue that Abramoff was an aberration, that most of the congressional travel paid for by private interests is legitimate fact-finding, not the sort of wretched excess associated with Abramoff (such as an extravagant Scottish golf excursion for former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay). As for gifts and free meals, the traditionalists argue that it is priggish to force a member of Congress to pick up the tab for a lunch that costs $50 (the current House ceiling for a free meal).

The problem is that, thanks in part to Abramoff and imprisoned former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham, the public will be suspicious of any policy that allows business and other interests to spring for congressional creature comforts. What they want -- and what the conference committee should give them -- is a bright-line rule. No meals paid for by lobbyists. No trips paid for by lobbyists. If senators and representatives need to cross the ocean or break bread to educate themselves about the people's business, the people should pick up the check.

Advertisement
Los Angeles Times Articles
|
|
|