In November, the investigation of lobbyist Jack Abramoff for bribing Congress sent a chill through Washington. Additional indictments were on the horizon and politicians pledged to tighten restrictions on lobbying and clean up government corruption.
Backed by powerful voices, such as Senator Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), listed by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) as one of the 14 most corrupt members of Congress, leaders of the House and Senate took bold steps to clean up the corruption. The House voted overwhelming, 379 to 50, to limit former members who have become lobbyists access to the House floor and the House gym. Since this momentous step, which at one time included a proposal to ban lobbyists from the House lunchroom, the process sputtered.
"There was some momentum for sweeping changes after Jack Abramoff pleaded guilty," says Craig B. Holman, campaign finance analyst for Public Citizen. "The Department of Justice has not provided additional indictments of lawmakers and the fear and momentum for change on Capital Hill faded away."
A number of prominent Republicans involved in the Abramoff bribe scandal remain under investigation. Robert Ney (R-Ohio), head of the House Administration Committee that oversees federal campaign finance laws, accepted a golfing trip to Scotland, a gambling junket to London, campaign contributions and free meals from Abramoff, who persuaded Ney to benefit his lobbying clients.
In September, a Texas grand jury indicted House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) for funneling illegal corporate contributions to Texas state elections. The indictment followed three rebukes from the House ethics committee for unethical conduct. Delay is being investigated for accepting payoffs from Abramoff, including skyboxes at sporting events, flying his staff to the Super Bowl and the U.S. Open, lavish trips to Saipan, Russia, Korea and London, Broadway shows and expensive meals.
Abramoff, who raised over $100,000 for Bush, implicated other powerful Republican leaders in Congress, including: John Doolittle (R-Calif.), who took illegal campaign funds from Tom DeLay and Jack Abramoff; Senator Conrad Burns (R-Mon.), who received $150,000 in contributions from Abramoff; and 17 current and former congressional aides, half of whom were hired by Abramoff. David Safavian, the White House chief procurement officer, who once worked as a lobbyist for Abramoff, was indicted in October for making false statements involving Abramoff to investigators.
Since 1998, the Center for Public Integrity found that lobbyists spent twice as much-$13 billion-influencing legislation and government regulations as they did on campaign finance. These funds buy influence in Washington, obscured by a federal disclosure system in disarray. Many firms never file required documentation of their influence peddling, over 14,000 documents are "missing," 300 lobbyists lobbied without filing, and thousands of forms were never filed. While the right to petition government is upheld in the U.S. Constitution, the sad truth is Congress promotes a system of legalized corruption.
"Campaign contributions are too high and too lax," says Holman, "Lobbyists solicit contributions, bundle contributions in networks, host fund-raising events, and even serve as campaign treasurers on committees and PACs, major sources of corrupting campaign money within the legal limits. They control the purse strings of office holders."
After the Abramoff scandal, Washington is back to business as usual. In March, The Senate passed (90 to 8) weak legislation requiring lobbyists to file more reports, and Congressmen to receive advance approval for lobbyist-paid trips and abstain from lobbying Congress for two years after leaving office.
The weak bill would not ban lobbyist-sponsored private travel or do away with earmarks, which dole out favors to lobbyists. The Senate rejected (30 to 67) an independent ethics office to investigate illegal lobbying and bribery, and will do nothing to regulate lobbyist money-raising activities for Congressmen who rely on them for most fund-raising activities.
In February, House Republicans challenged nearly every reform proposal and rejected bans on lobbyists-funded travel and limits on gifts. Banning rides on lobbyist’s corporate jets was called "childish," and the restrictions on lobbyists using the gym "would stifle social calls."
The Washington Post reports that lobbyists foresee "business as usual," with new rules only "a nuisance," and "any limits will barely put a dent in the billions of dollars spent to influence legislation." New ways to buy Congressional support with the annual $10 billion spent on influencing legislation and regulations include fundraising, charitable activities, and industry-sponsored seminars such as grass-roots activities, including letters, telephone calls and emails, the fastest growing form of lobbying today.
"We need more indictments of lawmakers to install fear in Congress and the voters need to actually react," says Holman. "There’s strong support among voters for lobbying reform and if voters react in 2006, it will come back on the agenda. If they don’t carry through, we lose."
With the Republicans holding all three branches of the government, corporate interests come first to scale back taxes and regulations, and put corporate interests in the center of the national agenda. The current bill is weak and pathetic.
"Today Capital Hill is being run by and for corporations," Holman says. "The motive here is profit and it has nothing to do with what is good for the country."
DON MONKERUD is an Aptos, California-based writer who follows cultural, social and political issues.