Lobbying scandal sets off scramble

THE BALTIMORE SUN

WASHINGTON -- With a burgeoning ethics scandal and fall elections looming, ideas about how to curtail the influence of lobbyists in Washington - and burnish the image of Congress - are suddenly popping up all over.

Republicans and Democrats alike are talking about new ethics rules, such as banning free trips from outside interest groups for lawmakers and their staff. In a reaction to the crimes of lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who pleaded guilty this month to fraud, conspiracy and tax evasion charges, some are calling for a ban on gifts from lobbyists, plus faster and better public disclosure of lobby activities and an enforcement system with teeth.

It is unclear, though, which - if any - proposals will become law and what the impact will be when members of Congress face voters in November.

Paul Miller, a lobbyist and president of the American League of Lobbyists, said that public opinion and the threat of a backlash at the ballot box would probably force lawmakers to make changes.

"They have to do something. If they don't, the public will clamor some more," he said. "It's an election year, so a lot of folks are fearful of that."

Larry Noble, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks the intersection of money, lobbyists and politicians, said he was surprised that confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Judge Samuel A. Alito Jr. didn't push the corruption issue off the front pages of major newspapers. That could be an indicator that pressure for change will continue.

Eliminating lobbyist gifts and free travel faces an "uphill battle because, frankly, a lot of members of Congress don't want to give those perks up," Noble said. "But as each day goes by, and more and more members jump on the bandwagon that 'we have to do something serious,' it becomes more possible."

Even if a package gets through, the issue is unlikely to evaporate before November, said Paul S. Herrnson, a University of Maryland political scientist.

But ties between lobbyists and lawmakers are so strong that meaningful change could be almost impossible to achieve.

House and Senate campaign accounts - and the fundraising entities that powerful lawmakers use to curry favor with their colleagues - are stocked with contributions from lobbyists. Receptions and dinners held by advocacy groups are a staple of the capital scene.

"The U.S. Chamber of Commerce likes to have unfettered access to the GOP," Herrnson said. "And the labor unions like to have similar relationships with the Democrats."

Speaker Dennis Hastert, an Illinois Republican, might propose a ban on privately funded travel for House members, said spokesman Ron Bonjean. Other proposals would build on legislation introduced last year that received little attention. They include curtailing gift-giving; forcing lobbyists to file more frequent, and more detailed, logs of their interactions with officeholders; and increasing the time former lawmakers and senior aides must wait before they can lobby their past colleagues.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee hopes for Senate action by the end of next month on a package of changes, said spokesman Bob Stevenson. Among ideas under consideration: bans on travel, gifts and lobbying by the spouses or relatives of senators, as well as criminal penalties for some lobbying violations.

Democrats, who would like to make what they call the Republican "culture of corruption" a major campaign issue, plan to release their own proposals this week. They are likely to include stricter rules for gifts and travel and a call for greater transparency of lobbying activities.

Lawmakers and their staffs already are barred from accepting gifts worth more than $49.99 - including meals - from lobbyists at any one time; the annual limit from a single source is $100. Accepting trips is permitted only if paid for by a private group that is not considered a lobbying entity, though some nonprofit groups have had lobbyists, including Abramoff, on their boards.

These trips add up: According to PoliticalMoneyLine, a Web site that tracks money in politics, members of Congress have received just under $20 million in plane tickets, hotel rooms and out-of-town meals since 2000.

Even as their colleagues debate the merits of these trips, lawmakers continue to accept them. Rep. Albert R. Wynn, a Democrat from Prince George's County, was scheduled to return Sunday from a five-day trip to Jamaica, at the invitation of the Inter-American Economic Council. The nonprofit group's Web site lists its mission as working to "bridge the existing gap between public and private sectors for the collateral advancement of regional economic development."

A spokesman for Wynn, Alon Kupferman, said he did not know how much the trip cost. He said Wynn went because he has a large number of constituents who hail from Jamaica and the Caribbean basin, and because of his interest in the island nation's efforts to strengthen port security and stop the drug trade.

Congress' travel rules have loopholes, though. For example, questions have been raised about congressional trips sponsored by the nonprofit National Center for Public Policy Research when Abramoff was on its board, including a 2000 trip to Britain for Rep. Tom DeLay, a Texas Republican.

DeLay was the main architect of the "K Street Project" - an attempt to cement a long-term GOP majority in Congress by placing former aides at big Washington lobbying firms and pressing the firms to hire only Republicans. DeLay, now under indictment in his home state on campaign finance-related charges, announced Jan. 7 that he would not try to reclaim his post as majority leader.

The next day, Hastert issued a statement saying he intended to move "aggressively and quickly" on lobbying reform. But two of the three men angling to succeed DeLay - Reps. Roy Blunt of Missouri and John A. Boehner of Ohio - also have close ties to lobbyists.

Another example of the cozy relationship between lobbyists and lawmakers: the increasingly common - and legal - practice of lobbyists holding fundraisers, which is why some people are pushing for better disclosure of lobbying activities.

Just last week, Michael V. Beall, president of the Maryland and District of Columbia Credit Union Association, e-mailed invitations to a fundraising luncheon next month to benefit Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger's re-election campaign. The event, recognizing the Baltimore County Democrat "for his ongoing support for the credit union movement," costs $125 for a "host" and $75 for a "guest," according to the invitation.

In his e-mail, Beall called the luncheon a "direct response to the staunch support exhibited by the congressman on a number of issues relating to credit unions," especially his early support for a piece of legislation involving credit unions. The measure, which supporters said would make credit unions more flexible by expanding their lending capacity, was opposed by the banking industry, which said it would give credit unions an unfair competitive advantage and make them less financially sound.

"We feel it is incumbent on the credit union movement in MD to show our appreciation for the congressman's brave stances on our behalf," Beall wrote, adding that if bringing a check to the event is "untenable," donors could mail money straight to Ruppersberger's campaign.

Heather Molino, a spokeswoman for Ruppersberger, said that he decided to support the bill on his own because many of his constituents belong to credit unions. Beall's group did not approach him about hosting the fundraiser until after he had decided to co-sponsor the legislation, she said.

Abramoff, who is cooperating with prosecutors investigating influence peddling, worked the Washington lobby system to the hilt. Abramoff, his clients and associates showered lawmakers with campaign cash, trips, tickets to sporting events and free meals at his former restaurant. Now, elected officials from President Bush on down are rushing to give back contributions from Abramoff or his clients and his associates, or to donate the money to charity.

While the Abramoff plea has set off a scramble on Capitol Hill, a national poll released last week shows that the story has little resonance with voters. The Pew Research Center survey showed that only 18 percent of Americans were paying close attention to stories about Abramoff.

But at the same time, the poll showed support for the Republican Party dropping. Forty-one percent of those surveyed said Democrats could do a better job of tackling the nation's problems, while 27 percent said they had more confidence in Republicans.

"It can be a very powerful issue if used properly" during the fall campaign, Herrnson said. "I think the only way the Republicans can really shed this is to pass some kind of reform."

gwyneth.shaw@baltsun.com

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