Each year, for the last 12 years, I travel to all 72 counties in Wisconsin and hold a listening session. Anyone is welcome to attend these open meetings -- you don't need to give me a campaign contribution or buy me a meal. Attendees are there to let me know what's on their mind.
This is what lobbying should be about -- ordinary people meeting with their elected representatives to ask questions and throw out ideas.
Unfortunately, this is not what most lobbying looks like in Washington, D.C. In the last six months, we have seen stories of lobbyists funding international junkets for members, which include days on famous golf courses and nights in luxurious resorts. And we have heard reports of lobbyists providing members with free access to their companies' or clients' corporate jets.
I have devoted a great deal of time to reforming our campaign finance laws so as to reduce the influence of special interests and return some measure of power to the American people. But campaign contributions are only part of the story. According to the Center for Public Integrity, lobbying expenditures in 2003-04 totaled $5.4 billion -- twice what candidates spent running for federal office.
That's why I have introduced legislation that would toughen the lobbying disclosure and gift rules for the first time in a decade -- to ensure better public disclosure about the activities of lobbyists and reduce the opportunities for private gain by those who serve the public.
My bill has several components. First, it would beef up transparency and disclosure requirements by making lobbyists disclose details about their expenditures on lobbying and the names of members of Congress or senior executive branch officials with whom they speak. It also mandates that the true identities of those behind anonymous lobbying coalitions be revealed. All the information provided in these reports will be included in a searchable online database that will allow the public to find information on lobbyists quickly and efficiently.
Second, the bill slows the revolving door between government and business by extending both the length and the scope of the "cooling-off" period for senior government officials who head into private practice.
The bill also puts public responsibility before personal gain by prohibiting lobbyists from planning, financing organizing or taking part in trips for Members and staff. It also requires Members and campaigns who use corporate jets to pay for the actual cost of the plane -- right now, all they have to do is a write a check for the equivalent of a first class ticket.
Finally, the bill prohibits registered lobbyists from giving gifts to members and staff. In my office, of course, we follow Wisconsin state ethics rules -- we don't accept gifts from anyone. I worked hard in 1995 to get the current congressional gift rules put in place. But I was only able to get the Senate to agree to limit dinners, tickets, and other gifts to a value of no more than $50, with a total cap of $100 per year from a single source. It has now become clear that lobbyists and members exploit these thresholds right and left. Even in Washington, D.C., $50 can buy a pretty good dinner, and it can buy a lot of drinks for staffers at a local bar after work. It's time for Congress to go cold turkey and stop feeding at the lobbyist-funded trough.
Ten years ago, Republicans took control of Congress with a pledge to "transform the way Congress works." But despite some initial productive steps, ordinary citizens continue to feel that their voices are drowned out by those of powerful, well-funded and well-connected special interests. Members of Congress need to spend more time listening to their constituents -- even the ones who don't have private jets.
Russ Feingold, D-Wis., serves in the U.S. Senate.
© 2005 Star Tribune