Lobbyist Reform Politics

The Republican and Democratic versions of lobbyist reform trotted out last week had very different styles. The austere Republican presentation professed desire for bipartisanship. The gaudy Democratic show equated the GOP with original sin. But each fell short of what is called for by the reformer most widely respected by the public, Sen. John McCain.

"I’m very disappointed," McCain told me, "to see the Democrats trying to turn this issue into attacking Republicans." But he was no less upset with open avowal by House Speaker Dennis Hastert and the House Republican establishment of earmarking funds that McCain considers the seedbed of lobbyist corruption. The Democrats, in their anti-Republican light show, ignored earmarks.

A reform of a system that has grown ever more rotten must have two salient characteristics in McCain’s view. It must be bipartisan, and it must eviscerate, if not eliminate, earmarks. McCain exerts extraordinary influence for a politician without a formal leadership role or a government office, but the magnitude of his task is awesome. He must convince Democrats to cooperate with Republicans when they now see an opportunity to crush the GOP, and he must wean his own party from its addiction to government pork.

Rep. David Dreier, a member of the Republican leadership as chairman of the House Rules Committee, discovered the difficulty of McCain’s first task two weeks ago when Hastert assigned him to come up with a lobbying reform package. Initially, he approached the ranking Democrat on Rules, Rep. Louise Slaughter, who, like many House Democrats, has grown acerbic as the party enters its 12th year in the minority. She responded to Dreier’s appeal for bipartisanship with cold shoulder and hot tongue.

Dreier next went to House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, who is viewed by Republicans as the ablest Democrat in the House but one with whom they can do business. Dreier first got the impression Hoyer might cooperate on lobbyist reform. But when that word leaked out, Dreier found Hoyer totally uninterested. "This is not a problem of rules," Hoyer told me he informed Dreier. "It’s a problem of conduct, Republican conduct." If so, I suggested, the only solution is a return to Democratic control of Congress, and Hoyer said I got that right.

In Dreier’s joint press conference with Hastert last Tuesday, he cited reform-minded Democratic Rep. Martin Meehan as his bipartisan partner. When I called Meehan, he conceded he was flying solo and did not seem too comfortable about it. But when I mentioned that Hastert and Dreier advocated reforming the so-called "527" loophole in campaign reform that permits mainly Democratic non-transparent funding, Meehan brightened perceptibly. "That’s a poison pill," he told me, meaning he could be off the bipartisan hook.

Hastert looked morose talking about lobbyist reform last Tuesday, but enthusiastic Democrats lined up at the Library of Congress the next day were reminiscent of the Newt Gingrich Republicans on the steps of the Capitol in 1994. Democrats finally see a route back to power.

Democrats did not mention earmarks, since even in their minority status they get 45 percent of the pork. Hastert last week was defiant in defending earmarks. "Quite frankly," he said, "we also have to observe the rights of [House] members to represent their districts and to be active in favor of things that they think will help."

Earmarking is the main issue separating three candidates for House majority leader in the Feb. 2 election by the Republican Conference. John Boehner and John Shadegg oppose them. Acting Majority Leader Roy Blunt, the front-runner, supports earmarks but says each should be identified with the sponsoring member of Congress. Actually, that’s the way the system works now, with lawmakers, including Blunt, rushing out press releases to advertise what they have done for their district.

Annual earmarks, non-existent two decades ago, now near 15,000. McCain sees this as the source of lobbyist corruption, the vehicle used to bribe Duke Cunningham and the focus for half the capital’s lobbyists. Both parties are united in silly changes like keeping former congressmen off the House floor and further curtailing how much a lobbyist can spend on a lawmaker’s lunch. Will they unite to get rid of the scourge of earmarks?