Missing the Mark with Lobbying Reform

Lobbying reform legislation, H.R. 2316, is more placebo for the public than actual medicine for the problems in Washington.  The steady increase in the number of lobbyists is a result of the increase of power and control by Washington.    

Those who complain about money in politics largely neglect the other part of the equation, that there’s politics in money.  Jack Abramoff, for example, was more like the bank robber who said he robbed banks because “that’s where the money is.”

“We laid down a marker and said we want to change the way business is done in Washington,” said Chris Van Hollen.  Representative Van Hollen chairs the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which oversees fundraising for all Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives.  His job is to keep the Democratic majority in Congress.

One of Nancy Pelosi’s first acts as Speaker was to extend the “work week” of Members of Congress from their typical three-day schedule to a full five-day schedule.  That keeps Members in Washington longer, closer to the lobbyists and away from their constituents at home.
Many Members of Congress complain that they need to spend too much time raising money and attending fundraisers.  With Members now spending more time in Washington, they’ll naturally attend more fundraisers hosted by Washington lobbyists instead of fundraisers back in their home districts.  And with all this extra time to legislate, grow government even more, dispense earmarks, etc., Members become a more enticing target for lobbyists and special interest dollars.

Capitol Hill news reporters were some of the most vocal cheerleaders for the extended congressional work week.  More news for them to cover, more face time and higher ratings.  That’s better for the news media, of course, but not better for America.

It seems, then, that Democrats’ changing how business is done in Washington apparently means ensuring lobbyists have even more access and influence than the folks back home who vote, and making Washington more of a center for special interest money than ever.  

Starting with that maneuver, the lobbying reform bill coming out of Speaker Pelosi’s House focuses on more form than substance.  For example, the bill will require lobbyists to report their lobbying each quarter instead of every six months.  More paperwork is one way Washington treats nearly every problem, often without any real benefit except for the new bureaucrats hired to manage it.

The real disease, however, is Potomac fever, and that’s not addressed in the lobbying reform legislation.  Members go to Washington.  They stay not because of the meteorological climate in Washington.  It’s the financial and power climate.  They need to go back home more often, and maybe earlier in their careers.

The lobbying reform bill makes one token wave at “Potomac fever.”  It will require disclosure of employment negotiations by Members and staff while they are still in Congress.  That’s good, but more paperwork doesn’t solve the underlying problem.

The House balked at extending the “revolving-door” provision from the current one-year ban on lobbying to two years.  The proposed two-year ban raised the ire of Massachusetts Congressman Michael Capuano.  “I made a career change 20 years ago to be a full-time elected official,” The New York Times quotes him as saying.  “I am no longer qualified to be a tax attorney.”

One can be sympathetic to Mr. Capuano since tax “simplification” legislation passed every few years by Congress makes the tax code so complex that it is difficult even for tax lawyers to stay current.  However, these “mamas-don’t-let-your-babies-grow-up-to-be-congressmen” blues should fall on deaf ears.  

Departing Members of Congress certainly are not unfit for gainful employment.  Lobbying is an easy option because they know how to work the system, which has become a lucrative insider’s game.  Worse, perhaps, is the perpetuation of this system in anticipation of cashing in.

The lobbying reform bill neglects a key ingredient of good government, which is to make it law for Members to actually read legislation they are voting on.  Right now, it is too easy for lobbyists to have special interest language, earmarks for pork and other bad provisions slipped into legislation.  Why?  Too many Members don’t read legislation they vote on.

We like to think that the legislative process should move slowly with thoughtful deliberation, airing of criticisms, and diverse if not wise input.  When legislation isn’t read and properly vetted, who can tell whether it is good legislation?  Washington often may be better at telling people what to think than at listening, but congressmen need to read the bills first.

Meredith McGehee of “reform” lobbying group, Campaign Legal Center, was quoted in  Roll Call, that if lobbying reform legislation drags on past Memorial Day, “we’re in a world of hurt.”  For whom was she speaking when she said, “we?”

Ms. McGehee threatened Democrats unhappy with the current lobbying reform bill, “Do you think you’ll be happier in the minority.”  That’s an ominous threat coming from an inside-the-Beltway organization entirely funded by wealthy liberal foundations that brought us McCain-Feingold, that flop legislation regulating and prohibiting expenditures on “influencing elections.”

These types of bills regulating “politics” have taught some lessons.  Beware of anyone who claims to be for “good government,” but who does not focus on “less” government.  Those with vested interests in big government may say things publicly about a “culture of corruption” in Washington.  Unless they focus more on the actual causes, their protestations may merely be diverting attention away from the real problems.  

Congress can continue to tinker around the edges by focusing on lobbying reform.  There are some good provisions in the lobbying reform bill.  But Congress is unlikely to focus on curing the root problems of Potomac fever.  Until then, lobbying reform is merely a band-aid on a cancer.