WASHINGTON – Members of Congress must look at their own behavior as well as lobbyists' if they are to regain the trust of the American public, senators said Wednesday.
At the same time, lobbyists and those who sponsor trips for lawmakers warned against overreacting to the headlines on the influence peddling activities of Jack Abramoff. In particular, they said, banning all privately funded travel could isolate lawmakers from the knowledge they need to write law.
What's clear, said Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, chair of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, is that Congress can't tackle the big issues facing the nation without the trust of the public. "And the public's trust in Congress is perilously low."
"Frankly, the status quo stinks and cries out for us to clear the air," Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, the committee's top Democrat, said at the first hearing following the Abramoff lobbying scandal.
Leaders from both parties in both chambers have promoted measures to tighten rules and laws governing lawmaker contacts with lobbyists. There are several common themes: restricting or banning the giving of gifts to lawmakers, prohibiting lobbyists from arranging or funding trips, lengthening the time between when a lawmaker leaves office and takes a job as a lobbyist and requiring greater disclosure of lobbyist activities.
But speakers at the hearing also said members of Congress must look at how they do business and get elected, larger issues that could complicate quick passage of the first lobbying reform bill in a decade.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., co-sponsor of one of the major lobbying bills, said Congress must tackle the problem of earmarks, special interest projects that get inserted in larger pieces of legislation, often with the help of lobbyists. "We're not going to fix this system until we fix the earmarks," he said. "It's disgraceful, this process."
Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., who is preparing legislation at the behest of the Senate GOP leadership, said his bill might also look at spending by tax-exempt partisan groups known as 527s, a touchy subject because Democrats relied heavily on such groups in the last election.
Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., also noted, in a broader sense, that Congress must look at how lawmakers finance their political campaigns. "Unless and until we address this in an honest fashion, we are carping on trifles here."
In the House on Wednesday, Democrats David Obey of Wisconsin and Barney Frank of Massachusetts said they would introduce legislation to eliminate all private money for House elections, turning instead to public financing. "The problem with politics is more fundamental than meals or trips with lobbyists," Obey said in a statement.
Taking a different approach, Sens. Norm Coleman, R-Minn., Wayne Allard, R-Colo., and Ben Nelson, D-Neb., unveiled a plan to create an independent commission, similar to the 9/11 Commission, to recommend ethics reforms. "What is at stake here is clearly the credibility of the institution," Coleman said at the hearing.
But Paul Miller, president of the American League of Lobbyists, urged Congress not to respond to the actions of a "few unscrupulous operatives" by impeding the rights of citizens, including lobbyists, to petition Congress and keep members of Congress informed.
John Engler, former governor of Michigan and current head of the National Association of Manufacturers, told the panel that the current system was working, noting that a lobbyist was going to jail and a member of Congress was going to be sentenced. He was apparently referring to Abramoff and former Rep. Duke Cunningham, R-Calif., who recently pleaded guilty to bribery.
"Whatever occurs, I think it is imperative that you do not overreact," he said.
Dick Clark, a former senator from Iowa who established the Aspen Institute program for Congress, said it was right for Congress to reject lobbyist involvement in trips. But a total ban on privately funded travel "would be a disservice to members of Congress," he said.
Aspen arranges seminars both inside the country and around the world where members of Congress are required to attend conferences that last six hours a day over four days. It does not pay for recreational activities.
"Foreign travel is essential in an era of globalization," he said. "Insularity is not an option for the world's only superpower."