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Published: Tuesday, 5/16/2006

Don't call it reform

ANYONE who believes that "congressional ethics" is an oxymoron will find their expectations confirmed in so-called lobbying reform legislation passed by the U.S. House of Representatives.

The House bill is worse - that is to say, weaker - than the Senate bill that preceded it. That's damning with faint praise because the Senate version wasn't much good at all.

The two measures now must be reconciled into one, but there is little hope for a bill strong enough to rein in the influence peddling that has engulfed the nation from sea - Randy "Duke" Cunningham in California - to shining sea - Jack Abramoff in Washington.

What your federal lawmakers are really intent on is passing a lobbying bill - almost any bill will do - just so they can say they've done it in advance of the Nov. 7 elections.

What the House bill doesn't do to promote lobbying reform is much more significant than what it does, a point neatly summarized by Fred Wertheimer, who heads a Washington reform coalition:

"The bill does nothing about fixing the scandalous, failed House ethics enforcement system, nothing about preventing corporations from making company planes available to members at deeply discounted costs, nothing about providing the public with information about the fund-raisers lobbyists hold for members, the parties they finance to 'honor' members, and the conferences and retreats held by members for which the lobbyists pay, and nothing about providing the public with information about the huge sums being secretly spent by professional lobbying firms on campaigns to stimulate lobbying by the public, including multimillion dollar advertising campaigns."

Much the same can be said about the Senate measure, passed in March.

Neither bill includes provisions for enforcement or outside monitoring, which is where current rules governing lobbying really fall down.

In the course of the Cunningham and Abramoff scandals, it has become apparent that the reporting and self-enforcement mechanisms now in place in both the House and the Senate are insufficient to discourage corruption.

A strong bill still is possible, but Congress cannot seem to muster the courage.

Indeed, members have downplayed reform, explaining that their constituents voiced few complaints during the recent recess.

The solution is the same as it's always been. The only way Congress can be held accountable for lack of lobbying reform is at the ballot box, six months from now.

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