I recently came across an interesting New York Times story from January 1997 that reported on a tough new lobbying reform package then shaking up Washington. The legislation fulfilled a pledge by then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich and the G.O.P.-led congress to crack down on corruption and special interests. It imposed a set of sweeping reforms, including a $50 limit on lobbyist-sponsored meals and gifts, which the Times said had “altered the traditional way of doing business in the nation’s capital.”
“A year after Federal lawmakers imposed on themselves one of the most restrictive codes of conduct ever and on the eve of the start of the first full Congress to live under those regulations, members of the House and Senate are starting to feel the full bite,” the newspaper reported. The tough new rules had bewildered some groups seeking “to gain access and cull favors from the power brokers on Capitol Hill,” and threatened the livelihood of restaurants favored by politicians, some which were on the verge of shutting down. “Even an updated Emily Post might have trouble directing one around the pitfalls of [the new] rules,” the newspaper said. Meanwhile, lawmakers consulted by the Times complained that the gift ban had had “a chilling effect”; during the previous Christmas season, members of Congress who had been invited to elaborate parties even had to determine with hosts who was paying for the event before they could confirm their attendance.
The chill quickly thawed. By late-1997, we now know, lobbyists and businessmen were routinely treating Duke Cunningham to lavish meals at the Capital Grille. Jack Abramoff ran amok, offering on-the-house wining and dining to lawmakers at his restaurant Signatures, home of the $74 steak. It was downhill from there. In 2005, Mitchell Wade, one of the businessmen subsequently reported to have bribed Cunningham, paid for a $2,800 meal at Citronelle with then-Congresswoman Katherine Harris. When caught, Harris claimed that she’d simply forgotten to contribute to the check and that Wade had done most of the damage. “Do I look like I ate $2,800 in one sitting?” she asked. “I always get a couple of appetizers and something to drink.”
It was precisely these sorts of abuses that led to the election in November 2006 of the new Democratic Congress, which commenced work with calls to curb the influence of lobbyists. Under House Speaker Nancy Pelosi Congress last year passed legislation by overwhelming margins–411-8 in the House and 83-14 in the Senate–that demanded “unprecedented disclosure of how lobbyists interact with lawmakers,” reported the Wall Street Journal. “Months in the making, the measure has been a major priority following the scandals of the previous, Republican-controlled Congress and represents the most ambitious effort to tighten ethics rules in a decade.” In September, President Bush signed the bill into law and congratulated lawmakers for making progress towards strengthening “ethical standards that govern lobbying activities.”
New rules approved by Congress included a flat-out prohibition on lobbyists treating lawmakers to meals and trips; restrictions on the use by members of Congress of corporate jets; a rule that barred former lawmakers from directly lobbying their old colleagues for two years after retiring, twice the old standard; and various steps designed to reduce pork-barreling and make the earmarking process more transparent.
The new rules were so rigorous that some wondered whether the whole ethics craze had gotten out of hand. “Things have gone so far in the nation’s capital that ethics is getting in the way of religion,” the Washington Post reported last fall, in an article that bore eerie similarity to the New York Times story published a decade earlier in the aftermath of the previous congressional reform bill. It told the tale of a lobbyist who had stopped serving pastries at a weekly Bible session he hosted that was widely attended by congressional aides. The reason: pastry came perilously close to constituting a meal, which would violate the new law’s ban on gifts to members of congress or staffers.
Now let’s consider a few headlines from recent news stories, all published during the first half of this month. “Congressional Crackdown on Lobbying Is Already Showing Cracks,” was a January 3 story in the Times. It cited Congress’s “creative interpretations of the new rules” and said watchdog groups were warning that “strict regulations are useless without strict enforcement.”
Two days later, the Post reported on the formation of a new Washington lobby shop headed by former senators John Breaux and Trent Lott. (The story confirmed a rumor that began circulating as soon as Lott announced his retirement last November. “Ka-ching!” began a story at the time in Politico. “It’s Senate Minority Whip Trent Lott’s turn to trade in his U.S. Capitol pin for cold hard cash on K Street.” The newspaper said speculation was already rife that Lott would team up with Breaux, who was then lobbying for the firm of Patton Boggs. “The only real question,” one lobbyist said of a potential Lott-Breaux partnership, “would be whether they would hire Brinks to bring in the money every day.”)
And what about the promised congressional crackdown on pork? During 2007, according to Taxpayers for Common Sense, congressmen secured more than 11,000 earmarks worth $15 billion. Democrat John Murtha retained his title of House Pork King, racking up $162 million in earmarks for his Pennsylvania district. “The Murtha operation—which has become a model for other entrepreneurial lawmakers—is a gross example of quid pro quo Washington,” said a New York Times editorial on January 14 “Every one of the 26 beneficiaries of Mr. Murtha’s earmarks in last year’s defense budget made contributions to his campaign kitty, a total of $413,250, according to the newspaper Roll Call.”
Meanwhile, the Washington Post reported the same day on the fate of a new rule that flatly forbade lobbyists from hosting parties to honor lawmakers at presidential conventions. “The House ethics committee, in its wisdom, issued an interpretation of the new law last month that leaves little of it intact,” the newspaper said. Among other things, the ethics panel had determined that only parties honoring a “specific member” would be prohibited; celebrations paying homage to more than one lawmaker wouldn’t be covered, which amounted to a rather broad loophole. Furthermore, only parties paid for “directly” by lobbyists would be outlawed, but private groups could still solicit money from lobbyists and use it to sponsor convention fetes. “Hard to imagine a clearer road map for lobbyists interested in getting around the intent of the new law,” the Post concluded.
Or perhaps the overriding intent of the law was, like in 1996, merely to make it look like Congress wanted to crack down on the influence of lobbyists instead of actually doing so.