After all the scandals that helped erase Republican majorities in both the House and Senate, who could vote against a reform bill that cleans up the place? As it happened, just eight congressmen and 14 senators dared to do so. Nor was the president willing to stand in its way, even if he signed the “Honest Leadership, Open Government Act of 2007” quietly and without fanfare on Friday.
#ad#This bill is tough — on Senate staff assistants, anyway. By eliminating the $50 threshold on gifts that lobbyists can give to Senate staffers, it upholds the integrity of Congress by depriving these twenty-somethings, many of whom make about $30,000 per year, of free tickets to the cheap seats at Nationals’ baseball games. It will bar lobbyists from giving them the free key chains, bottle openers, and those squishy blue balls that have heretofore influenced the votes of many corrupt senators.
There is one provision in this law relevant to the corruption of recent years. It bars senators and staff from accepting some free travel from private sources, although there are noteworthy exceptions even to this. Other than that, the most important effect of this bill will be the torture of a few impoverished kids who can’t even afford to run up a decent tab at the Tune Inn.
The bill does ban lawmakers from taking free lunches from lobbyists — well, unless those lobbyists show up with a campaign check. In that case, the free lunch is a legal “fundraiser,” so no worries. Now there will be an official price of admission to see the senator, instead of the old implicit one.
Democrats seemed very proud of the bill they crafted to bring congressional corruption to its knees. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.) have called it “the toughest ethics and lobbying reform in generations,” and claimed that it will “significantly reform the way business gets done in Washington.”
That must be news to Reps. Jack Murtha (D., Pa.), Pete Visclosky (D., Ind.), and Jim Moran (D., Va.). These three — two of whom control a House Appropriations subcommittee — have passed along $100.5 million in earmarks to clients of the PMA Group, a lobbying firm. According to Roll Call, PMA and its clients, in turn, kicked back $542,350 in campaign contributions to these three lawmakers in just the first six months of the year.
Everyone wins in Washington! (Except the taxpayer.)
Nothing in the new law puts a stop to this, nor to the general corrupt (but legal) practice of earmarking federal funds for the well-connected — central to the imprisonment of Rep. Duke Cunningham (R., Calif.) and investigations of sitting and former members of Congress. The bill does not address the earmarks contained in bills outside the regular appropriations process, such as the recent transportation bill that funded bike paths and the so-called “Bridge to Nowhere” while neglecting vital infrastructure maintenance.
Despite promises to make earmarks more transparent, the new law allows the Senate majority leader or the relevant committee chairman to waive disclosure at his discretion. Even worse, as Robert Novak reported on September 9, the new bill actually makes it easier to add to the final version of a spending bill scores or even hundreds of earmarks that were never in the original version. This used to require a two-thirds vote in the Senate — now it will require just a single three-fifths vote to add scores of new pet projects. As for the House, majority Democrats there passed their own earmark rules early in the year and have since figured out how to circumvent them.
Among the most widely praised provisions in the new law is a requirement for disclosure by lobbyists who bundle more than $15,000 in political contributions semiannually. This will be a boon for reporters in search of stories, but it won’t diminish the power of Washington’s top lobbyists. Such federal disclosure, one lobbyist tells me with a grin, provides “free advertising” for him and his colleagues to woo special interests craving influence and lawmakers in need of campaign cash. In days past, he had to settle for telling tall tales with the other lobbyists about whose bundle was bigger — usually over cigars and scotch at the Capitol Grille. Now he has full disclosure with a congressional blessing.
The bill prohibits Senate spouses from lobbying the Senate — but not the ones who are already established lobbyists. This would have done nothing to avert the absurd spectacle in 2001 of Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D., S.D.) pushing a $15 billion airline bailout through Congress, while his established lobbyist wife was representing the airline industry. And really, even if Senate spouses lobby the House instead, can any senator be unaware of which special interests are filling his family’s bank account?
The best part of the bill is Section 214, a rare example of humor in legislation. The same Democratic Congress that is trying to dictate where the oil industry invests its profits (“you’re not putting enough into alternative energy!”) has inserted a non-binding resolution urging that “the lobbying community should develop proposals”…to regulate itself!
It should come as no surprise that the “lobbying lobby” that owns Congress has better lobbyists than do the oil lobby, the auto lobby, the beer lobby, or any of the other industries in the United States that actually produce something beneficial to its citizens. That’s how we got our new “ethics” law.
— David Freddoso is an NRO staff reporter.