The Senate went from white-hot ready to pass lobbying reform in January to, a few cooling weeks later, willing to let the whole issue die. That suggests more than mere uncertainty about what reform should look like but a desire among senators not to further restrain the largess of lobbyists. That in itself is reason to pass a bill, but the lack of agreement on what reform should look like means that whatever passes should be incremental for now.
A modest bill, for instance, would include the disclosure provisions from the legislation reported out of the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs. That bill includes listing of paid travel, especially on private aircraft, disclosure of gifts, limits on former staff members lobbying their old bosses, identification of the source of earmarks and making conference reports available on the Internet for at least a day before a vote, among others.
It would also mean passing a measure rejected by the committee, establishing an independent Office of Pub-lic Integrity, proposed by committee Chairman Susan Collins and ranking member Joseph Lieberman. The nonpartisan office would examine ethics complaints and make recommendations to the House and Senate ethics committees, who would then decide whether to conduct further investigations. In that sense, the office would act as the committee’s staff in gathering information, but the committee itself wouldn’t decide what the office should pursue and what it should ignore.
Members of the ethics committees, not surprisingly, don’t like this provision – they see it as an affront to their roles as watchdogs, investigators and judges of ethical lapses in Congress. Yet after the prolonged difficulties of the House Ethics Committee to reach a conclusion on Rep. Tom DeLay’s activities, the protests seem hollow. The Senate committee may have done better, though it too must overcome an absence of public trust.
Trust is essential for Congress or an administration to operate. Questions about involvement in the war in Iraq, the Dubai Ports deal or even straightforward legislation on taxes and budgeting all turn on whether the public believes Congress is acting in its interest or in the interest of a few industries or groups with effective lobbyists.
The combination of increased reporting and an office that will actually do something with the information – Congress has had several rounds simply of lobbying disclosure over the decades without changing the culture much – is important. It is also about as far as a wary Congress might go this year and still pass a bill. Call it an encouraging start.