WASHINGTON - January 23 - Congress has finally awakened to the corruption that festers under the influence-peddling system in Washington. The legislative proposals offered so far are good first steps, but more needs to be done and the key will be the details of the proposals. We look forward to working with congressional leaders in strengthening the reform bills as the legislative process continues, said a coalition of seven national reform groups today at a press conference. The groups released six benchmarks for lobbying reform that they will use to judge the merits of the proposals being considered by Congress in the next few months.
Admitted felon and disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff is only a symptom of the corruption that infects Washington; he is not the disease. The core problems that allow the system of legalized bribery to flourish in Washington, and which led to the Abramoff scandal, are systemic, the groups said. The groups are Public Citizen, Common Cause, Democracy 21, Public Campaign, Campaign Legal Center, U.S. PIRG and League of Women Voters.
The roots of the disease lie in the way election campaigns are financed, largely with special-interest money rather than through modest citizen contributions and public funds; the way lobbyists and lawmakers can discuss legislation and government contracts while on exclusive golf courses and in luxury resorts, beyond the watchful eye of the public and with the trips paid for the lobbying interests; and the way ensuring compliance with ethics and lobbying laws has been entrusted to the very people least interested in their enforcement – the lawmakers themselves.
A number of important legislative proposals have emerged to address the corruption and lobbying abuses in Washington. These include: the recent Republican and Democratic leadership plans; legislation from Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wisc.) and Reps. Marty Meehan (D-Mass.) and Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.), which are similar to each other; and identical bills from Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Rep. Chris Shays (R-Conn.). The proposals offer some significant changes in ethics and lobbying laws, but also have shortcomings.
The six benchmarks for lobbying reform that the national watchdog organizations urge Congress to use when developing bipartisan legislation are:
- Break the nexus between lobbyists, money and lawmakers: By capping contributions to candidates from lobbyists and lobbying firm PACs at $200 per election; prohibiting lobbyists and lobbying firms from soliciting, arranging or delivering contributions and from serving as officials on candidate campaign committees and leadership PACs; and prohibiting lobbyists and their organizations from paying or arranging payments for events “honoring” members of Congress and political parties, and from contributing or arranging contributions to entities established or controlled by members of Congress, such as foundations.
- Prohibit private interests from financing trips or subsidizing air travel for members of Congress and staff, executive branch officials and federal judges. Corporations and others should be prohibited from making privately owned planes available for members to travel at the cost of a first class air ticket rather than the cost of a chartered plane.
- Ban gifts to members of Congress and staff. The gift ban should close the existing loophole in the gift rules that allow lobbyists and others to pay for parties held to “honor” or “recognize” specific members, such as the lavish parties held at the national party conventions.
- Oversee and enforce ethics rules and lobbying laws through an independent congressional Office of Public Integrity and increase penalties for violations. The office would monitor and oversee financial disclosure and lobbying reports, advise members, staff and lobbyists on compliance with the rules, conduct investigations of non-frivolous allegations of ethics violations, present cases involving potential ethics violations to congressional ethics committees for consideration and action, and refer potential lobbying law violations to the Justice Department for civil enforcement.
- Slow the revolving door: By prohibiting members of Congress and senior executive branch officials from making lobbying contacts or conducting lobbying activities for compensation for two years after leaving their positions.
- Place sunshine on lobbying activities and strengthen financial disclosure reports: By requiring establishment of a robust disclosure system on the Internet; ensuring that lobbying firms disclose grass-roots lobbying activities and the financial backers of stealth lobbying coalitions are also disclosed; and requiring lobbyists to file a list of the members’ offices and the congressional committees they lobbied during the quarter.
The organizations also called for fixing the presidential public financing system in time for the 2008 elections, extending public financing to congressional races, replacing the Federal Election Commission with a real campaign finance enforcement agency, closing the loophole for 527 groups and abolishing leadership PACs. Also key are addressing the earmarking problem and creating a more open and democratic process in Congress to ensure lawmakers have time to read bills before they are voted on and to ensure open debate, the groups said.
A recent Washington Post/ABC News poll reported that 90 percent of the American people believe it should be illegal for lobbyists to give members of Congress gifts, trips or other things of value, and two-thirds of the American people believe it should be illegal for lobbyists to make contributions to members and other federal candidates.
A more detailed explanation of the six benchmarks for lobbying reform is available at each of the group’s Web sites and at www.CleanUpWashington.org.
To read Public Citizen President Joan Claybrook's statement, click here.