Lobby Reform is Overdue in Congress

Monterey County Herald, Sunday, January 15, 2006
By Leon E. Panetta
The Abramoff scandal is the latest in a long line of political scandals going back to the founding of the republic.

In 1797, during the Adams administration, a bribery scandal involving a payoff of American emissaries to France almost brought the nation to war.

In the 1870s, a construction company gave stock to congressmen, high-ranking Republican officials and the vice president to stop a government inquiry into an illegal transaction. The Grant administration survived only to face a series of scandals involving further bribes and payoffs.

The 1920s saw the Teapot Dome scandal that involved trading money for oil fields in Wyoming. That and other bribes marked the Harding administration as one of the most corrupt in history.

From Tammany Hall to Watergate to the ethics violations that brought down former House speakers Jim Wright and Newt Gingrich, the common theme of most of these scandals was the influence of money in trying to manipulate political power.

It certainly is no different with the recent admissions of fraud, bribery and corruption by lobbyist Jack Abramoff. He defrauded several Indian tribes of $82 million and gave lavish gifts and trips to lawmakers to benefit his clients and himself. This case, with its luxury skyboxes, golf trips to Scotland, free dinners and large campaign contributions, symbolizes Washington’s cash-for-policy culture.

With the threat that more members may be implicated, senators and U.S. representatives are now scrambling to return tainted campaign contributions from Abramoff and his clients in the hope that they can purge themselves of the scandal.

House Majority Leader Tom DeLay has been implicated in the scandal and is facing indictment on unrelated campaign finance charges. He was forced to step down to avoid a bloody battle for succession. Those seeking his position are now pledging lobbying reform and increased penalties for misbehavior.

Both parties are moving quickly to push reform agendas that provide greater accountability and transparency in the relationship between members and lobbyists in the hope of pacifying a public outraged over the Abramoff scandal.

But the problem in Washington goes deeper than Abramoff, DeLay or the inherent temptation for abuse in one-party rule of all three branches of government. It goes to the very nature of the relationship between members of Congress and lobbyists and the key ingredient of that relationship — money.

Lobbying and the cash provided by lobbyists have exploded in recent years. The astounding growth of the lobbying industry tracks the growth of the federal government. The dramatic rise in government regulation has been matched by the private sector’s efforts to manipulate the system.

Between the early 1970s and the mid-1980s, the number of trade associations doubled. In the first half of the 1980s alone, the number of registered lobbyists quadrupled and today stands at 34,750. There are more than 60 lobbyists for every member of Congress.

Their sole reason for existence is to influence public policy. They can do this by carefully arguing the substance of their cause or they can provide large amounts of political contributions to the member. Guess what they usually resort to as their preferred weapon of choice?

Over the past decade, the pressure on members and political parties to raise huge amounts of money for elections has grown so bad that everyone is consumed by fundraising. The result is that lobbyists now spend the bulk of their efforts on political contributions.

A study by the Center for Public Integrity found that of the nearly $700 million raised by both parties in the 2004 congressional election, more than $300 million came from lobbyists or their clients. In the presidential race, 1,300 registered lobbyists gave slightly more than $1.8 million to President Bush’s campaign while 442 lobbyists gave $520,000 to Sen. John Kerry’s campaign.

Today, there is not an evening in Washington when Congress is in session that is not consumed by as many as 10 to 20 fundraisers for members and candidates. Lobbyists carry a set of checks to each of those fundraisers and make sure the beneficiary knows where the money came from.

Is there a price to be paid for these contributions? You bet there is. While it may not be as blatant as the outright bribery involved in the Abramoff scandal, there is a clear message that in exchange for a generous campaign contribution, the lobbyist expects access and a sympathetic ear to the concerns of clients. And if not, that member’s survival could be threatened by a generous contribution to a campaign opponent.

This is the lobbying game that breeds the Jack Abramoffs of the world, who feel free to buy and sell their influence without limits.

So, how do you begin to fix a problem that has become part of the political culture in Washington? What Jack Abramoff did in trading money and gifts for specific actions benefiting his clients was the criminal version of what most lobbyists do with money, a wink and a nod.

Of course, lobbying is a reality in Washington and in many ways provides the opportunity for profit and nonprofit sectors of our economy to influence how our democracy works. That will not and probably should not change. Lawmakers should be open to the views of all of their constituents in determining the best public policy.

But what can and should change is the influence of money. Reforms that limit lobbying gifts of travel, lodging, food and other activities will help, as will efforts to increase penalties and disclosure. But if nothing is done to change the way elections are financed in this country, history tells us that little will change.

To truly limit the influence of lobbyists, you have to limit the money.

Entrenched industries and entrenched incumbents of both parties can be expected to resist change that will threaten the way they survive in office. For that reason, they will enact a series of reforms intended more for public relations purposes than for meaningful change.

The most important reform is to “follow the money,” and that means a fundamental revision of the method of financing elections. The time has come to enact a system of public financing that limits what candidates can spend on legislative contests. Last year, Connecticut passed a full public financing system for legislative and statewide elections after a series of scandals forced the resignation of the governor. The Congress must be bold enough to pursue the same kind of reform at the federal level.

Perhaps, in the end, the most important change goes to the attitude of those elected to public office. If members of Congress decide that it is in their self interest to enact bold reforms that would fundamentally change the way they finance their elections, then something different from the past can happen.

What they need to understand is that if they again fail to enact real change, their survival could well be threatened by a public that has grown increasingly angry and frustrated by the influence of lobbying money on public policy in this country.

It is time for the people, not the lobbyists or their money, to control our democracy.

Leon Panetta is a former congressman and White House chief of staff whose column appears every other month in Commentary. Readers may write to him at the Panetta Institute, 100 Campus Center, Building 86E, CSU Monterey Bay, Seaside, CA 93955.


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