Victory For K Street
David Donnelly is the national campaigns director of the Public Campaign Action Fund.
On Wednesday, a federal judge in Miami sentenced disgraced and convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff to 70 months in prison. Within a few hours, some 900 miles away, the U.S. Senate passed a lobbying “reform” bill that sentenced America to ongoing scandal.
The contrast was striking. With irony thicker than a wad of bills, Abramoff began to atone, but our elected officials did not.
Before receiving his sentence for a wire fraud conviction connected to his bizarre purchase of a casino fleet in Florida, the former lobbyist told federal judge Paul C. Huck that, “In the past two years, I have started the process of becoming a new man.” Abramoff is cooperating with federal prosecutors on a corruption investigation that is said to involve as many as 20 federal officeholders and congressional and Bush administration employees.
Meanwhile, back in Washington, senators passed a lobbying “reform” bill that would do almost nothing to reel in the next Jack Abramoff or, for that matter, themselves:
“The Senate largely avoided curtailing the behavior of lawmakers,” The Washington Post’s Jeff Birnbaum dryly reported.
But that didn’t stop some from claiming a victory. Sen. Susan Collins, R-ME, said the bill helps restore “the bonds of trust with our constituents [that have been] frayed.”
And it didn’t stop some from using hyperbole. “This is a much tougher bill than anyone would have anticipated when we started this process,” declared Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa.
“There's a sign that's now up in front of the Capitol. It says ‘Not for Sale,’” said Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn. The fine print on that sign might as well say “Already bought.”
The Senate measure, which passed on a 90-8 vote, bans lobbyists’ gifts and meals and tightens some rules for special legislative projects called earmarks. It faces an uncertain future in the House, where new Majority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, has been busily downplaying prospects for significant changes.
Abramoff gave his share of free meals to members of Congress. He told Vanity Fair that Sen. Conrad Burns’ staffers treated Signatures, the restaurant he used to own, as “a cafeteria.” But the big payoffs came from the overseas trips and campaign donations he offered. He also helped advance the K Street Project by underwriting golden parachutes for GOP congressional staff who entered the lobbying and advocacy world. If the Senate bill became law tomorrow, all of these types of big payoffs, if they aren’t attached to an explicit quid pro quo, would remain perfectly legal.
In the face of burgeoning scandals, Congress has an opportunity to take up reforms that change the way Washington does business, reducing the influence of lobbyists and the vested interests that hire them. That opportunity may be fleeting.
Congress must squarely address the inherent conflicts in our system of privately financing campaigns by taking up the issue of publicly financed elections. Full public funding should be available to congressional candidates who agree to limit their spending. Any reform plan that does not include elements providing an alternative to the special interest funding of federal campaigns will not effectively deal with the most troublesome core issues facing our political system.
In fact, Dodd has already said as much by announcing his support for comprehensive public financing of elections based on working models in Maine and Arizona and the similar Clean Elections law his home state of Connecticut adopted in the wake of scandals involving former Governor John Rowland. Reps. John Tierney, D-Mass., and Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., have filed a Clean Elections bill in the House.
But it might be hard to get these issues back on the agenda. Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., in voting against the lobbying reform measure, announced that, “The Senate has missed a once-in-a-decade opportunity to clean up the way we do business in Washington.”
But there might be a silver lining in the continuing scandals, which was shared with a laugh by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who joined Obama in opposing the bill: “The good news is there will be more indictments, and we will be revisiting this issue,” predicted McCain.
Let’s hope so. And, like Dodd, elected officials ought to look to the states. For McCain and Collins, they don’t need to look far. If Congress gets serious about public financing, all Americans will join them and rejoice in hanging Dodd’s sign.