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Archive for Friday, December 23, 2005

Lobbyist reform is perfect issue for Bush

December 23, 2005

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President Bush seems to be having trouble settling on a Big Idea for the upcoming State of the Union address. That's not too surprising: The sixth time is rarely a charm. The 2005 model - spending capital on Social Security - didn't work out too well; the president needs something a little less capital-intensive for 2006. And, as his advisers seem to have concluded, tax reform may not be the ticket: Are the folks out there really going to get jazzed up about fixing the alternative minimum tax?

I'd suggest a different alternative: reining in the influence of Washington lobbyists. The state of the union can't be strong when the state of the capital is so sordid.

Making lobbying reform a priority may sound a bit counterintuitive for this president. After all, the Bush administration hasn't exactly been at odds with lobbyists. Dozens of registered lobbyists - including one Jack Abramoff - were among the Pioneers ($100,000) and Rangers ($200,000) who harvested big bundles of campaign cash for the president. From the White House chief of staff (former auto industry lobbyist) on down, the administration is teeming with the once and future kings of K Street.

And yet, it would be good politics and good policy for the president to bite the hands that fund him.

The Democrats can't utter a sentence these days without bemoaning the Republican "culture of corruption." How better to take the wind out of their sails than to co-opt the corruption issue? The president's most effective immunization against the Abramoff virus is one he could administer himself, by getting out ahead of the problem.

So what would By Ruth Marcus

The Washington Post

President Bush seems to be having trouble settling on a Big Idea for the upcoming State of the Union address. That's not too surprising: The sixth time is rarely a charm. The 2005 model - spending capital on Social Security - didn't work out too well; the president needs something a little less capital-intensive for 2006. And, as his advisers seem to have concluded, tax reform may not be the ticket: Are the folks out there really going to get jazzed up about fixing the alternative minimum tax?

I'd suggest a different alternative: reining in the influence of Washington lobbyists. The state of the union can't be strong when the state of the capital is so sordid.

Making lobbying reform a priority may sound a bit counterintuitive for this president. After all, the Bush administration hasn't exactly been at odds with lobbyists. Dozens of registered lobbyists - including one Jack Abramoff - were among the Pioneers ($100,000) and Rangers ($200,000) who harvested big bundles of campaign cash for the president. From the White House chief of staff (former auto industry lobbyist) on down, the administration is teeming with the once and future kings of K Street.

And yet, it would be good politics and good policy for the president to bite the hands that fund him.

The Democrats can't utter a sentence these days without bemoaning the Republican "culture of corruption." How better to take the wind out of their sails than to co-opt the corruption issue? The president's most effective immunization against the Abramoff virus is one he could administer himself, by getting out ahead of the problem.

So what would lobbying reform look like? First and foremost, disclosure. Under the current rules, lobbyists report sketchy information infrequently. When they're first hired by a client, they file forms stating that fact and the issue they've been hired to lobby on. Twice a year they update that with forms listing the amounts they've been paid (rounded to the nearest $20,000), the issues they've lobbied on and the part of government they've lobbied.

To get a sense of how unhelpful this information is, consider this from the official filing instructions: "Disclose only the houses or agencies, such as 'Senate,' 'House of Representatives,' 'Department of Agriculture,' or 'Executive Office of the President,' rather than the individual office."

Real disclosure would require lobbyists to identify the specific offices they contacted, if not the individuals themselves. It would have lobbyists detail the meals or entertainment or other gifts they provided to the targets of their lobbying. It would apply to the massive sums spent on grass-roots lobbying - ginning up the folks back home - that are not reported at all. It would shine light into obscure corners such as favored charities and presidential libraries, where lobbyists can direct donations that aren't likely to be revealed.

It would require lobbyists to report not only the campaign checks they write to the targets of their lobbying but also the far more telling number of how much they raise for them. The president, as it happens, is perfectly positioned to push for disclosure of these campaign "bundlers" - he was there first with his own move to name the Pioneers and others who brought in big hauls for his campaigns.

Lobbying reform should also deal with some of the piggish behavior - lavish golf junkets, skyboxes at sporting events and the like - that has the public so exercised about the Washington way of life.

Under the current rules, lobbyists themselves can't pick up the tab for congressional travel. Why does it make sense, then, to let the corporations and other entities they represent foot the bill? At the very least, lawmakers and congressional staff ought to be required to submit detailed itineraries and descriptions of their travel expenses. That might make members think twice before checking into a $500-a-night hotel room or hopping aboard a private jet.

It seems unlikely, I concede, that the president will choose to take up this cause. But maybe - as with Nixon going to China - George W. Bush is just the right president to go after lobbyists.

- Ruth Marcus is a member of The Washington Post's editorial page staff.lobbying reform look like? First and foremost, disclosure. Under the current rules, lobbyists report sketchy information infrequently. When they're first hired by a client, they file forms stating that fact and the issue they've been hired to lobby on. Twice a year they update that with forms listing the amounts they've been paid (rounded to the nearest $20,000), the issues they've lobbied on and the part of government they've lobbied.

To get a sense of how unhelpful this information is, consider this from the official filing instructions: "Disclose only the houses or agencies, such as 'Senate,' 'House of Representatives,' 'Department of Agriculture,' or 'Executive Office of the President,' rather than the individual office."

Real disclosure would require lobbyists to identify the specific offices they contacted, if not the individuals themselves. It would have lobbyists detail the meals or entertainment or other gifts they provided to the targets of their lobbying. It would apply to the massive sums spent on grass-roots lobbying - ginning up the folks back home - that are not reported at all. It would shine light into obscure corners such as favored charities and presidential libraries, where lobbyists can direct donations that aren't likely to be revealed.

It would require lobbyists to report not only the campaign checks they write to the targets of their lobbying but also the far more telling number of how much they raise for them. The president, as it happens, is perfectly positioned to push for disclosure of these campaign "bundlers" - he was there first with his own move to name the Pioneers and others who brought in big hauls for his campaigns.

Lobbying reform should also deal with some of the piggish behavior - lavish golf junkets, skyboxes at sporting events and the like - that has the public so exercised about the Washington way of life.

Under the current rules, lobbyists themselves can't pick up the tab for congressional travel. Why does it make sense, then, to let the corporations and other entities they represent foot the bill? At the very least, lawmakers and congressional staff ought to be required to submit detailed itineraries and descriptions of their travel expenses. That might make members think twice before checking into a $500-a-night hotel room or hopping aboard a private jet.

It seems unlikely, I concede, that the president will choose to take up this cause. But maybe - as with Nixon going to China - George W. Bush is just the right president to go after lobbyists.

- Ruth Marcus is a member of The Washington Post's editorial page staff.

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