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Ethics Reforms Likely to Take Hold, But Might Not Have Teeth

With congressional lobbying reform plans cropping up faster than a Washington power player can say, "Check, please," it seems almost a foregone conclusion that a bill will become law no later than the fall midterm election, political observers say.

But whether the final rules actually will work is a wholly separate question.

Despite a bevy of recent political feuds in both houses of Congress — over Supreme Court nominees, Patriot Act reauthorization, budgets and U.S. troop levels in Iraq, to name a few — political momentum continues to build for a change in laws governing lobbying and ethics rules to define lawmakers' relationships with lobbyists.

But partisanship, the sheer number of reform proposals and the complexity of the legislative process could weaken the proposals.

"My guess is something called the 'Ethics Reform Act of 2006' is going to pass," said Mark Graber, a government and politics professor at the University of Maryland. "There reaches a certain point in which the public anger is such that politicians feel the need to respond with a law."

That point, some academics and other observers say, is now. The furor surrounding powerful lobbyist Jack Abramoff and the extent of his criminal behavior has fanned the flames for new reforms.

Abramoff last month pleaded guilty to conspiracy to bribe a public official and commit other crimes, tax evasion and wire fraud. One of Abramoff's associates, Michael Scanlon, pleaded guilty to related charges in November, and a former top procurement official in the Bush administration also faces charges linked to the Abramoff investigation.

So far, no charges have been leveled against members of Congress, but Rep. Bob Ney, R-Ohio, and a former deputy chief of staff to Rep. Tom DeLay, R-Texas, have been implicated in the scandal, and public opinion of Congress is weak.

Ney stepped down from his House leadership position on Jan. 15 after facing pressure from party leaders over the Abramoff investigation. House Republicans last week elected John Boehner of Ohio to replace DeLay, who was forced to give up the post in September in light of campaign finance-related money laundering charges in Texas.

In a Diageo/Hotline poll taken Jan 12-15, 52 percent of registered voters said they believed a member of Congress would put the needs of donors, lobbyists or special interests first; only 12 percent believed a member of Congress would put voters first.

The same poll found that 72 percent of respondents said they believed corruption was a problem for both congressional Republicans and Democrats, and 55 percent said they believed that members of Congress don't become corrupt until after they arrive in Washington.

In a Jan. 10-11 FOX News/Opinion Dynamics poll, 44 percent of respondents said they believed their own congressional representative had taken money or things of value in return for casting a certain vote; and 65 percent said most elected officials in Washington make policy decisions or take action as a result of money received from major campaign contributors.

During testimony last month before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, which advocates removing money's influence from politics, said the public is ready for congressional action.

"The American people are looking for strong medicine to solve very serious problems they see in the way Washington works and the way lobbyists function in Congress. ... Now is the time to act," Wertheimer said.

In his plea agreement, Abramoff admitted to trying to bribe a congressman, since identified as Ney, to promote a Florida business deal and to change laws favorably for his clients. Abramoff also admitted he took millions of dollars from American Indian tribes and skirted federal laws by showering lawmakers with money, gifts and entertainment in exchange for political action.

Aiming to clean up the relationship between lobbyists and lawmakers and to reduce the power of money in the political process, lawmakers have offered proposals in a number of areas, including stricter rules on gifts, entertainment and travel — and who pays for it. They have also proposed tweaking campaign finance regulations.

The proposals so far include a package from congressional Democrats, two separate plans from House and Senate Republicans, which are still under construction, and two individual reform bills introduced last year: one from Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and one from Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis.

Another approach comes in the form of a Sept. 11 commission-styled group, which is being put together by Sens. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., and Norm Coleman, R-Minn. Separately, Sens. Trent Lott, R-Miss., and Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., this week jointly proposed limits on earmarks, a form of appropriations that have come under increased scrutiny in light of the lobbying scandals.

Together, the lobbying reform proposals in the Senate call for more reporting on the sources of lobbying money, setting stronger rules on when former members of Congress and their aides can work as lobbyists and tackling earmarks — lawmakers' pet projects that get slipped into bills, sometimes without full review before they're passed.

Earmarks have gained scrutiny since former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham, R-Calif., pleaded guilty in November to taking $2.4 million in bribes from defense contractors in exchange for legislative provisions that would benefit them.

Specific to the Democrats' proposal is a call for restrictions that would ban actions similar to the so-called K Street Project, named for the street in Washington that is home to the most powerful lobbyists.

Central to the Democrats' "culture of corruption" rally cry against the majority-holding Republicans is the charge that under the K Street Project, Republican lawmakers worked in concert with the likes of Abramoff to put sympathetic professionals in high-paying lobby firms in exchange for better access to top party leaders.

During the initial hearings in January on ethics reform, members preached cooperation and bipartisanship. But even before the proposals could be debated in their respective legislative committees, Democrats and Republicans appeared unable to come to agreement on other matters. In late January, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist offered an olive branch to his Democratic counterpart, Minority Leader Harry Reid, to consider a bipartisan task force in shaping the proposals, only to be rebuffed by Reid.

McCain too had sought a bipartisan working group on lobbying reform. He thought he had Democratic assurance from freshman Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., who was chosen by the Senate Democratic Caucus to lead lobbying reform efforts, but to McCain's chagrin, Obama told McCain this week that Democrats prefer to skip a working group and stick with the committee process.

In the House, where last week members tweaked some rules to distance the relationship of lawmakers and lobbyists, some Republicans criticized the changes as unnecessary and weak. For instance, the House passed a rule change that bans former congressman who have become lobbyists from the members gym or from lobbying on the House floor.

Professor Graber said that while much of the information sought in so-called open government reports often gets buried, he said the number-one priority should be to increase disclosure of information.

Julius Hobson, an adjunct associate professor of lobbying at George Washington University, said each chamber of Congress could pass bills that differ on a number of measures, such as the value of gifts allowed, what type of travel is allowed and whether to force further restrictions on so-called 527s political action groups, named for the section of tax code that governs them. 527s have been criticized because they do not face the same spending and contribution restrictions as other political organizations.

With so many differences, some minute and some drastic, Congress will be challenged to get anything done.

"It sort of makes you wonder whether they're able to change the law," said Hobson, who also is a lobbyist for the American Medical Association.

Hobson said it's more likely that the House and Senate will be able to change their bodies' individual governing rules, which cover things like voting procedures and ethics, but not put in major overarching changes.

Hobson said momentum is building for changes, but it's not enough to make changes. He said, one thing that could open the barn doors: more indictments.

"You get people indicted, you get members and lobbyists indicted, nothing will move people faster than that," Hobson said, adding that Congress could still fail itself.

"Smart lawyers have found loopholes and driven through them, which is how we got 527 groups," Hobson said. "For every action, there's going to be a reaction, and sometimes, the reaction's not good. You don't know that until after you put something in statute."

Partisan issues will play a role in the reform process, he added, but the question of whether a bill will pass might hinge on the basic legislative process.

"That's a big question, and it's a big question because ... when you look at what's likely to happen in the House and the Senate, they're going to be a bit far apart," Hobson said.

Christopher Deering, chairman of George Washington University's political science department, added that the process of bringing together a bipartisan package could weaken any proposed bills.

"History tells us that there's a likelihood ... those types of bargains tend to water things down," Deering said.

But Graber said he predicts bipartisanship will win in the end and some form of reform will pass.

"I don’t think the Republican leadership wants to run in 2006 with 'We're holding up the ethics reform act,'" he said.