Overcoming initial objections, President Bush signed a lobbying reform bill Friday designed to curb the corrupting influence of big money-special interests by requiring more disclosure and fewer freebies.
“The essence of successful ethics reform is not laws and restrictions, but full disclosure. The legislation includes minimal improvements in the area of disclosure, both for lobbying and earmarks. But there is still more to be done — and I will work with the Congress to improve upon this legislation,” Bush wrote in his signing statement.
And though he tried to downplay the bill’s scope, Bush’s signature gives Democrats, who promised to clean up Washington’s culture of corruption, a significant victory. They will likely tout the success come election time, especially in tough races like Ohio Democratic Rep. Zack Space’s. He ran in part on an anti-corruption platform against former Republican Rep. Bob Ney, who is serving 30 months in prison for involvement in the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal.
“[Democrats] said, 'Hold us accountable for getting things done.' They followed through on this very important piece of legislation. I think it’s going to be a boost to them as they go back home,” said Democratic Rep. Chris Van Hollen, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
Key ethics reforms
Under the new law, legislators and their staff are prohibited from accepting gifts from lobbyists and their clients and it requires senators to pay charter rates when traveling on private planes. House members cannot travel on private planes.
The bill also requires lawmakers to disclose how much campaign cash lobbyists raise on their behalf and what earmarks they have requested.
When the Senate passed the bill, the White House complained that the earmarking disclosure was “toothless” and called hypocritical a provision that limits some executive staff and senators from lobbying for two years after leaving office, but allows House members to lobby after one.
But it seems the political reality outweighed the president’s objections. The bill sailed through the Senate 83-14 and the House 411-8, giving lawmakers a substantial veto-proof majority. To sustain the veto, many Republicans would have had to switch their votes on a potentially volatile campaign issue.
Since the law passed last month, the lobbying community has downplayed the idea that the new requirements will transform how business is done in Washington.
While the free charter plane rides and expensive dinners with lawmakers are no longer, lobbyists believe the new requirements may increase business. Mid-sized companies are likely to outsource their lobbying rather than risk making mistakes and facing bad headlines and six-figure fines, some said.
“I think they are very reasonable changes that will make the process better for everybody. I think it does make it clear that it has to be a more transparent process,” Stewart Van Scoyoc, president of Van Scoyoc Associates, said last month.
Still, lawyers are already finding loopholes. Lawmakers and lobbyists will still be able to attend the same receptions with free appetizers as long as a relatively large and mixed crowd is invited to the event.