Lobbying Reform Is a Sham

So Republicans in the House passed a “lobbying reform” bill today. What kind of lobbying reform? Here’s how the Times describes it:

The new bill would require lobbyists to disclose more of their activities, increase financial penalties for violations and require lawmakers and their aides to attend ethics training.

It also aims to discourage earmarks by requiring House members who write spending bills to disclose them, a move lauded by fiscal conservatives who complain that earmarks waste taxpayer money and drive up the cost of legislation.

That second paragraph can be dispatched rather quickly; “earmarks” amount to a very, very tiny fraction of government spending (about 0.1 percent in 2006). That “reform” won’t amount to anything major. So the first paragraph there seems to be the nut of it: Congress will crack down on lobbyists. But Democrats, who “denounced the measure as a sham,” have long argued that lobbyists are only half the problem. And they’re totally right. The actual members of Congress, after all, first had to open the door for Jack Abramoff and his ilk before any corruption could take place.

Most importantly, the bill does absolutely nothing about the procedural abuses that Republicans have devised in Congress to stifle debate and create a “spoils” system for their corporate funders. (Susan Milligan’s three-part series on this subject is invaluable.) As the Democratic analysis of the bill notes, “A legislative process that does not allow open debate and provide opportunity for amendment on legislation, and instead allows small groups of House leaders and private interests to write the bills, is a process vulnerable to corruption and improper influence from lobbyists.” That’s really the main issue, and on this point the reform bill is utterly silent.

Instead, the bill focused on minor rules governing gifts and the like. But as a number of experts who testified before the House and Senate noted, Congress already has a number of rules governing gifts and lobbying law and ethics violations. Unfortunately, they’ve been inadequately enforced, especially since Denny Hastert helped push through a rule in 2005 making it easier for Republicans to block ethics investigations. And so long as effective oversight is nowhere to be found, minor new rule changes won’t make all that much of a difference.