Today the U.S. House is expected to take up the lobbying- and ethics-reform bill that has been in the works since the Jack Abramoff scandal first broke. If all goes according to GOP-leadership plan, House members will approve legislation so ineffectual as to be almost a parody of itself. Then, behind closed doors, House-Senate conferees will hash out the differences between that bill and a slightly (only slightly) better Senate version; President Bush will sign it into law; and voila! Members can return to their districts and say they've taken care of lobbying reform.
The problem is that the process so far illustrates exactly the kind of congressional disingenuousness that makes 80 percent of Americans think that bribery and other corruption are widespread in Washington. For example, for all the talk of need for transparency and openness in government, House GOP leadership is expected to bring the lobbying-reform bill to the floor in a way that would limit debate and prevent members from offering any amendments.
The House bill itself, meanwhile, is a masterpiece of subterfuge. It promises to ban privately funded travel -- but the ban expires in December. It requires lobbyists to disclose fundraising events -- but then defines fundraising events so narrowly (only events specifically billed "to honor" a member of Congress) as to render the provision meaningless. About all the House bill does is slightly increase disclosure of lobbying activities and "earmarks" in spending bills.
That this will only tell us more about what we already know is a colossal problem. It is as if a doctor attending to a dying heart-attack patient recommended another round of tests, instead of life-saving surgery.
Common Cause President Chellie Pingree, who called the Senate bill "largely window dressing," has rightly tabbed the House version "worse than window dressing." At least the Senate bill has some provisions to increase disclosure of fake "grassroots" lobbying, and mandates a two-year "cooling-off" period between a Capitol Hill or White House job and a lobbying job, instead of the current one year.
Neither bill, however, would create an independent ethics-oversight committee, which good-government types have been calling the most important reform, on the premise that if you ask members to police themselves, you get the broken ethics-oversight process we have now. Nor does either bill make any attempt to limit the amount of private money in campaigns -- which is what gives the lobbyists much of their influence. Turn to full public funding of elections (as some, including Rep. Barney Frank [D.-Mass.] and David Obey [D.-Wis.], have proposed), and suddenly members of Congress would surely feel much less obligated to sit down with every lobbyist who comes a-knocking.
Asking Congress to pass lobbying and ethics reform is a difficult task. Most members probably don't think of themselves as unethical people, and would no doubt bristle at the suggestion that they could be bought off for a steak dinner or a ride on a corporate jet. (House Majority Leader John Boehner [R.-Ohio], for example, called a private-travel ban "childish.") But what matters is not the specific trips or meals or fundraisers, but the aggregate: that too many lawmakers let themselves -- often without thinking -- become constantly surrounded by lobbyists, because there is so much lobbyists can and do provide for them.
Perhaps the House will suddenly get religion and approve something resembling meaningful lobbying reform. More likely, though, Sen. John McCain (R.-Ariz.) will have been proven right when, after approval of the Senate bill, he proclaimed: "The good news is there will be more indictments, and we will be revisiting this issue."
Lee Drutman, a former reporter at The Philadelphia Inquirer and The Providence Journal, is a frequent Journal contributor and co-author of "The People's Business: Controlling Corporations and Restoring Democracy."
© 2006 The Providence Journal