Republican leaders in the Senate have had a plan in place for the last two months to “get ahead of” the Jack Abramoff scandal by coming up with a new proposal for lobbying reform. The leadership “decided in November that lobby reform for the Senate was a priority for this session,” and Majority Leader Bill Frist placed Pennsylvania Republican Senator Rick Santorum in charge of it, Senate sources tell National Review Online.
Santorum’s efforts will be apart from the work of Senator John McCain, who has already introduced a proposal for lobbying reform. That proposal, McCain said in mid-December, “provides for faster reporting and greater public access to reports filed by lobbyists and their employers under the Lobbying Disclosure Act of 1995. It requires greater disclosure of the activities of lobbyists, including for the first time, grassroots lobbying firms. The bill also requires greater disclosure from both lobbyists, and Members and employees of Congress, about travel that is arranged or financed by a lobbyist or his client.”
Santorum’s proposal is expected to differ from McCain’s, but it is not yet clear what the differences will be. “It is not McCain,” says another Senate source. “It would be another way of looking at it.”
It is also unclear, at least at this moment, how bipartisan the Abramoff scandal will become. The leading figures in the affair so far are Republican lawmakers and their former staffers, but it is likely that at least some Democrats will be drawn into the investigation. In any event, Republican leaders want to be seen at the forefront of the reform movement, and not in a partisan, defensive crouch.
Republicans would not concede the comparison, but the lobbying-reform plan bears some similarity to the actions of President Bill Clinton, who in 1996, just days before his reelection, was faced with revelations about John Huang and the campaign-finance scandal. With Republicans pushing hard on the scandal, Clinton reacted by calling for campaign-finance reform. “The Republicans have been reluctant to give up their access to big money,” Clinton said on November 1, 1996. “We have played by the rules, but I know and you know we need to change the rules.”
There is, however, one significant difference between the two strategies. At the same time that Clinton called for reform, his attorney general, Janet Reno, severely limited the campaign-finance investigation, and dozens of Democratic donors eventually took the Fifth Amendment or fled the country to avoid telling investigators what they knew. In the Abramoff matter, the Bush Justice Department appears to be vigorously pursuing the investigation, even though its main targets, at least so far, are Republicans.
–Byron York, NR’s White House correspondent, is the author of The Vast Left Wing Conspiracy: The Untold Story of How Democratic Operatives, Eccentric Billionaires, Liberal Activists, and Assorted Celebrities Tried to Bring Down a President–and Why They’ll Try Even Harder Next Time.