WASHINGTON – Editor's note: This is the second in a two-part series on the role of lobbying in Washington, D.C., and associated reforms proposed by Congress.
The extent of high-dollar lobbyist Jack Abramoff's criminal behavior might become the biggest congressional scandal in decades, but to clear the air lawmakers in Washington must first grapple with the slippery equation that includes lobbying, politicians, money and legislation.
The root problem, analysts say, is that the political process is being corrupted by money linked to lobbying — not a new problem by any means, but a pervasive one that further erodes public trust in the legislative system.
And even when rules seek to strike a balance between what should and should not be allowed in the lobbyist-lawmaker relationship, not everyone is going to follow them, added congressional scholar Norm Ornstein, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.
"Sometimes they work, sometimes they don't," Ornstein told FOXNews.com. "You're never going to get beyond the reality that lobbying is in the DNA of the political process ... and you're never going to get around human nature. ... So you can't legislate perfection here, but it's very clear that we've gotten lax and there's an awful lot of money and politics in Washington.
"Right now, we need more boundaries," said Ornstein.
Early this month, Abramoff pleaded guilty in two separate cases as part of an agreement with prosecutors to aid their influence-peddling investigation of Congress. Among his transgressions, Abramoff admitted to mail fraud, tax evasion and conspiracy related to his bilking of Native American interest groups and lobbying of elected officials.
The statement of facts backing Abramoff's plea agreement said he, partner Michael Scanlon and others used sky box tickets, meals at Abramoff's D.C. restaurant, campaign donations, paid foreign travel and shady employment deals, including paying the wife of a former DeLay aide to persuade lawmakers to pass legislation favorable to their clients and block bills that hurt them.
Democrats have latched onto the Justice Department probe into Abramoff and former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay's legal tangles in Texas as central pillars for their rallying cry of a Republican-led "culture of corruption." Democratic party leaders say they are on the verge of introducing a new set of reforms.
"As one who loves this institution, I know that we can honor the intention of our founding fathers who saw this as a marketplace of ideas. It has turned into one of the most closed, corrupt Congresses in history. We intend to make it the most open and host Congresses in history," said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., while laying out a schedule for reform plans last week.
DeLay stepped down permanently from his leadership post earlier this month. Rep. Bob Ney, R-Ohio, who has been implicated by Abramoff, relinquished his chairmanship of the House Administration Committee on Sunday.
Hoping to avoid losing their majority in Congress during November's mid-term election, Republicans are in the midst of reshuffling their top leaders and trying to project an image of reform.
"We're going to be moving forward both to do what we can to bring our conference together, but also to talk about the important issues of reform: lobbyist reform, spending reform, the kinds of reforms we need in earmarks," said acting House Majority Leader Roy Blunt of Missouri, referring to the practice of adding spending measures late in the appropriations process, a habit that has been criticized as one run largely by special interest groups and lobbyists.
"I think the issue here is about just one issue for our colleagues, and that is which candidate can provide the real leadership to reform our party, to reform Congress, and to provide the leadership to renew the confidence and courage of House Republicans," Rep. John Boehner of Ohio, who is also running for majority leader, told FOX News.
Rep. John Shadegg of Arizona, who entered late in the game, said neither of his competitors for the No. 2 spot in the House GOP has the moral authority to implement reforms.
"I don't think either one of them understands the consequence of the scandals that have hit Washington. We have an agenda for the American people of smaller government and lower taxes and less regulation and more freedom, but the American people aren't paying any attention to that agenda right now because we haven't engaged in the reform that we promised on the other side," he told FOX News.
Defining the Limits
According to a Jan. 10-11 FOX News/Opinion Dynamics poll, 65 percent of Americans said they believe most elected officials in Washington make policy decisions or take actions as a direct result of campaign contributions. Forty-four percent said they believe their congressional representative has taken money or things of value in return for a specific vote. A Jan. 4-8 poll by the Pew Research Center showed that 81 percent of people surveyed said they believe lobbyists bribing lawmakers is common behavior while only 11 percent of people said they thought recent reports were isolated.
Republican Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney told FOX News that with the Abramoff and Scanlon scandals in everyone's newspapers, he believes the perception of money's influence on Washington is at an all-time low.
"I think a lot of folks felt that, with campaign finance reform, that this was all going to get better. It seems to be getting worse. Money is in deeper shadows and deeper corners," he said.
According to court papers, Abramoff and Scanlon — who also has pleaded guilty to related crimes — have agreed to repay more than $40 million between them to the tribes they cheated. But public confidence in the Legislature has already been undermined as a result of members' involvement in corruption, said Randall Eliason, who was in charge of the Justice Department's Public Corruption/Government Fraud Section until 2001.
"The harm in political corruption cases is that the public officials who ... are hired by all of us, elected by all of us, paid by all of us, and who take an oath to act in the public's interest" are taking payola to act in a certain way, Eliason said. They are "lining their own pockets."
Abramoff's plea deal demonstrates that bartering cash for legislation, soliciting politicians to cash-laden clients and auctioning their clients' needs for personal gain does exist in Washington. But lobbying isn't always on the seedy side, said Paul Miller, president of the American League of Lobbyists. He said ethical problems are perceived to be worse than they are largely because of singular incidents like the Abramoff scandal.
"It's not an issue about lobbyists. Lobbyists have always been around," Miller said. "I believe it's about arrogance and power," two qualities he said he believes pushed Abramoff beyond the boundaries of ethical behavior. "And nobody stopped him until now."
The patriotic side of lobbying demonstrates the many checks and balances in the American government system. Embodied in the First Amendment, the right to petition the government for a redress of needs ranks right next to the right to free speech, exercise of religion and freedom of assembly.
On top of that, the Lobbying Disclosure Act of 1995, defines the rules lobbyists must follow if they're going to ply their trades on Capitol Hill. Lobbyists must meet certain criteria and must report twice a year whom they represent, how much they were paid and on which issues they lobbied. For lawmakers, a host of ethical rules in both the House and the Senate govern gift-giving, travel, conflicts of interest and the closeness of relationships between lawmakers and lobbyists.
"As long as we stay within those bounds, we're doing everything that the law requires," Miller said, adding that his organization has its own ethical standards, which serve as more of an honor code. "There are a lot of people that hold themselves to a higher level" of ethics than the LDA provisions, he added.
"There's a very fine line between what is considered legal and ethical and legitimate, and [what constitutes] bribery," said Eliason, who is also an adjunct professor of corporate crime at American University and George Washington University.
Eliason offered examples of where the line is drawn. A lawmaker who makes a financial deal in exchange for a vote is over the line. An elected official who accepts a campaign contribution and later says he is considering a group's concerns has walked up to the line but may not have crossed.
"If they go so far as to make some sort of express deal, then all of a sudden it can become criminal," Eliason said. "There's a lot of nodding and winking and that's why I say the entire campaign finance system we have is in some way a sort of organized, legalized bribery."
According to PoliticalMoneyLine, total federal lobbyist spending for the first six months in 2005 was $1.12 billion, and for all of 2004 it was nearly $2.14 billion. The Center for Responsive Politics reports Abramoff and his clients gave approximately $4.4 million to candidates over the past five years, including $2.9 million to Republicans, and $1.5 million to Democrats.
Senate and House rules allow lawmakers to accept travel expenses, but not from lobbyists or lobbying firms, and those expenses must be reported. Lobbyists, however, are allowed to assist in arranging travel like booking flights and scheduling. Disclosure reports also show foreign-sponsored travel for many lawmakers.
Miller said travel can be necessary for lawmakers to visit projects they're considering supporting, like new auto plants, military installations and other sites that are in the public interest. But when travel comes up for his clients, Miller said he steps out of the equation and tells his client to work directly with the congressional members' staffs.
When Abramoff helped pay for lawmakers' trips to Scotland, "that's a step over the line," Miller said.
Abramoff also used sports arena skyboxes and his "Signatures" restaurant to entertain lawmakers, apparently running up against congressional ethics rules on gifts. The House and Senate rules set dollar limits on gifts and take into consideration language in the United States Code that bans the solicitation or asking of gifts for personal benefit. An exception is made for the solicitation of gifts for charities or political campaigns.
Eliason said he believes the laws defining official bribery are strong enough for successful prosecutions. The hard part is proving whether an agreement was made in the form of a quid pro quo, or one action in exchange for another. Abramoff's plea deal will be crucial in giving investigators the language they need to determine if a lawmaker passed over the line.
Miller said he's not so sure new laws are needed, but rather an agreement to simply ban the acceptance of trips, travel and anything of value will do. He acknowledged that the conversation could get bogged down in the details over what a gift is
Miller also has been quoted elsewhere saying he doesn't believe lawmakers should rush to judgment on new ethics rules that could prove problematic in the future.
Reforms Put on the Table
The Democratic and Republican leadership are proposing their own sets of rule changes, and a number of other proposals have been introduced or are being drafted.
— In the coming days, Democrats in the House and Senate are planning to release a plan that would ban gifts and travel, meals and entertainment from lobbyists or groups that retain lobbyists; shut down so-called "pay-to-play" schemes in which, Democrats say, Republicans directed lobbyists to hire like-minded employees in exchange for political access; and prohibit last-minute spending measures, called earmarks or sometimes "pork-barrel projects" often associated with last-minute lobbyist arm-twisting.
— Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., is planning on releasing a package based on a bill introduced by Sen. John McCain that would ban gifts, including sports and cultural events; end lobbying by spouses and relatives; restrict access to the Senate floor; amend rules on earmarks although allow for necessary ones; and further define conflict-of-interest rules. McCain's bill also would increase the number of times lobbyist must report information and further lengthen the time from the departure of a one-time senator or staffer and their ability to lobby former colleagues.
Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., reportedly had been developing a draft of his own, but will now put together the one under the direction of Frist. Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., signed onto the McCain-sponsored proposal. Separately, Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., has had a plan on the table since last year.
On Tuesday, House Speaker Dennis Hastert and Rep. David Dreier of California detailed a GOP ethics reform package that they say they will introduce on the first day Congress returns on Jan. 31. Dreier said they hoped to have a package ready for action in March.
"It is not acceptable for anyone to break the rules of House, or the law, and if they have they should be held to account," Hastert said at a news conference.
In addition to further gift restrictions, a lobby-paid travel ban and earmark reform will be included. Hastert and Dreier also called for reform of so-called 527s, a type of special interest group named for after their place in the tax code. Hastert criticized the tax-exempt organizations, saying they are used to circumvent other transparency-minded rules.
In an apparent nod to the recent admission by Rep. Duke Cunningham, R-Calif., of taking bribes, the plan also includes the possible removal of congressional pensions for anyone convicted of a felony connected to their official duties.
Meanwhile, a memo obtained by FOX News shows Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid's staff will now be subject to a unilateral ban on lobbyist-paid meals, gifts and travel ahead of Congress-wide rules. Reid's staff could face disciplinary action including termination for violating the rules, the memo says.
How the rule proposals shake out won't be seen for at least the next couple months, and possibly longer. Frist said he hopes to have a package complete by the end of February. Members of both parties say they are ready to move on some kind of reform right away.
FOX News' Trish Turner contributed to this report.