WASHINGTON – Five months after lobbyist Jack Abramoff pleaded guilty to influence-peddling charges, a lobbying overhaul bill in Congress has yet to see the light of day.
The Senate passed its version at the end of March and the House bill was approved in early May. In the month since, the House has not taken the next step, naming negotiators for talks with the Senate on a compromise bill.
In the meantime:
-- Rep. William Jefferson, D-La., has yet to explain how $90,000 in alleged bribery money ended up in his freezer.
-- Rep. Bob Ney, R-Ohio, is under criminal investigation for his ties with Abramoff.
-- former Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas is resigning from Congress this week, battered by the guilty pleas of two former aides in the Abramoff probe and facing a trial himself in Texas on election-related money laundering charges.
It was only in January that Republicans and Democrats battled for the ethical high ground. They proposed to outlaw privately funded travel, ban meals and gifts from lobbyists, and slow the move of former lawmakers to lobbying jobs.
Rep. David Dreier, R-Calif., who has led GOP lobbying efforts in the House, said at the time he hoped to pass a bill by the end of February.
That did not happen for two reasons, according to an analyst.
Congress stumbled over how to rein in lobbyists without violating their constitutional right to petition the government, and lawmakers were sidetracked by immigration legislation, extending tax breaks and other priorities, said Rutgers University political scientist Ross Baker.
The public has not pressed the lobbying issue because "most ordinary Americans really don't think much can be done," Baker said. "There's a built-in cynicism" about corruption in Washington.
Fred Wertheimer, president of the watchdog group Democracy 21, says lawmakers may be misreading public attitude. "The public understands corruption, understands it's wrong and wants it eliminated," he said.
Dreier's spokeswoman, Jo Maney, said GOP leaders could appoint negotiators to the House-Senate conference soon after Congress returns from the Memorial Day recess. She said the effort to reach consensus on the bill has been a challenge because some lawmakers are opposed to any changes while others favor revamping the entire system.
The House bill emphasizes greater disclosure of lobbyist activities and requires approval beforehand for privately funded trips. The measure does not change current limits on meals and gifts that representatives can receive from lobbyists.
The Senate bill bans senators and staff from accepting meals from lobbyists and extends from one to two years the waiting period before a retired senator can lobby former colleagues. The bill requires lobbyists to disclose their activities in grassroots lobbying, where the public is encouraged to contact lawmakers through phone calls or television ads.
Both bills take steps to further identify the source and purpose of earmarks, the pet projects inserted in larger bills.
The House limits contributions to independent political groups known as 527s, for the section of the tax code that covers them. Senate Democrats strongly oppose this idea. While both parties took advantage of help from these groups in 2004, Democrats had greater success in raising money through them.
Neither bill would change the current practice whereby members pay only the price of a first-class ticket when they catch rides on corporate jets.
Paul Miller, president of the American League of Lobbyists, said neither bill sufficiently addresses how to better enforce current rules to deal with a lawbreaker such as Abramoff.
Since January, Miller said, there has been a subtle shift in how lobbyists do business. Now, both lawmakers and lobbyists are "going above and beyond" to avoid any semblance of impropriety, he said.
Lawmakers "being scared to talk to us is fading, which is a good thing," he said, but meetings are more likely to take place in offices rather than at a game or over dinner.
Wertheimer said there was a good chance Congress will pass a bill before the November election. But he said it is clear that such legislation would not have any effect on how influence seekers function in Washington.
"The bill we expect to come out of Congress," he said, "is going to be treated as a nonentity."